Reasons for firing disputed

Loudon captain to testify in case involving jail reports

Hugh G. Willett
Monday, December 3, 2007

The Loudon County merit service board will hear testimony this afternoon from Sheriff's Office Capt. Bill Shirk, who claims he was wrongly dismissed in July for reasons more connected with politics than job performance.

The board heard almost five hours of testimony Thursday from Sheriff Tim Guider, deputies and jailers concerning policies, procedures and politics at the county jail.

Claims of political infighting aside, the case is about whether Guider had proper cause to dismiss Shirk for removing documents from the jail, said Loudon County Attorney Robert Bowman.

Bowman cited as precedent a Knoxville Utilities Board merit review case where "cause" was defined as "conduct which could harm the organization."

Despite a long and, until recently, amicable relationship with Shirk, Guider was forced to terminate the 24-year veteran because he violated department policy and state law regarding removing inspection reports from the jail, Bowman said.

"Guider's concern was that if (the Tennessee Corrections Institute) came to the jail and asked for the records, the jail could lose its certification," Bowman said. "This is certainly conduct that could harm the organization."

Guider testified that a TCI inspector had warned him in May that the jail could lose certification if weekly inspection reports were not completed and available for inspection.

Jerry Abston, executive director of the TCI, testified that a jail could lose certification if the required paperwork was not available.

Shirk concedes he took the documents from the jail but says he did so for safekeeping following a break-in of a filing cabinet in his office.

Shirk's attorney, David Wigler, argued that the reports were being completed properly and were available at Shirk's home - just 10 minutes away - if not actually on site.

"The documents were not missing or tampered with or destroyed," Wigler said. "When he was asked to provide the documents he did so the next day."

During the course of the testimony Wigler tried repeatedly to introduce evidence to show that Shirk was the victim of a political conspiracy that began when he disagreed with Chief Deputy Tony Aikens regarding the seizure of assets in late 2004.

"He was moved from third in charge to fourth in charge," Wigler said. "He was completely undermined in his ability to manage the jail."

Subordinates who performed poorly were not disciplined and were allowed to go over Shirk's head to voice complaints directly to the sheriff, Wigler said.

Former correctional officer Christine Hancock, who worked in the jail under Shirk, testified that she was "alienated" by other jail employees for her support of Shirk.

Wigler attempted to show that more serious offenses, such as losing the keys to the jail, occurred regularly, but were not dealt with as harshly as Guider's decision to terminate Shirk.

Wigler also introduced admissions by other jail administrators who acknowledged they had at times taken paperwork home with them.

This double-standard was the result of a political vendetta against Shirk, Wigler argued.

Shirk's problems managing the jail grew worse until he was dismissed by Guider in September 2005 for poor performance. Several months later, Guider reinstated Shirk with back pay.

"I felt at the time that he could not get a fair hearing before the board," Guider said.

Guider claimed that Shirk's difficulties in working with others at the jail actually began when he returned from cancer treatment in 2002. Shirk suffered personality changes, appeared standoffish and tended to disagree with most of his peers, Guider testified.

Following the testimony, the board denied a motion by Wigler for a directed judgment or consideration of a less severe disciplinary action, opening the way for testimony by Shirk today.