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Social media conduct questioned over Rankin report
Co. Attorney considering legal action
courthouse pic new web

Barton County Sheriff’s Office
Social networking prohibited activities and guidelines
(partial list)
• If you identify yourself as an Barton County Sheriff employee, be clear hat you are expressing your own views and not those of the county or the department. Do not give the appearance that you are speaking or acting on the department’s or county’s behalf. 
• Negative comments on the internal operations of the department, or specific conduct of supervisors or peers that impacts the public perception of the department is not protected First Amendment speech, in accordance with established case law. Officers in other jurisdictions have been terminated under similar circumstances. 
• If your co-workers are included in your social network, ensure that your content is consistent with county’s policy regarding how to treat co-workers. For example, do not post content that would violate the county’s policy against sexual harassment or racial intolerance.
• Your posted content has the potential to be shared broadly, including with individuals with whom you did not intend to communicate. For example, opposing counsel may subpoena your posts if they are relevant to a lawsuit related to your official duties. Counsel may also use your posts to impugn your reputation or show bias. 
• Officers may comment on issues of general or public concern (as opposed to personal grievances) so long as the comments do not disrupt the workplace, interfere with important working relationships or efficient work flow, or undermine public confidence in the officer. The instances will be judged on a case-by-case basis.

 The situation involving the cancellation of a jury trail for Jeffrey Allen Rankin following a plea bargain that reduced the counts against him from 31 to two has led to an email exchange between Barton County Attorney Amy Mellor, Barton County Operations Manager Phil Hathcock and Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir.
On Feb. 5, the Great Bend Tribune published its report, “Rankin pleads guilty to sexual exploitation; multiple charges dropped in plea agreement.”
Comments by a non-elected employee of the Barton County Sheriff’s Department concerning the post prompted the initiation by Barton County Attorney Amy Mellor of the exchange in which Mellor indicated possible legal action may result.
Sheriff Brian Bellendir alluded to the email exchange as part of his comments to the Barton County Commission on Monday, Feb. 12. He, Denise Rankin, ex-wife of Jeffrey Allen Rankin, and her attorney Stacia Boden, expressed dissatisfaction with the County Attorney’s office in its handling of the Rankin case and other sensitive cases.
On Tuesday, Feb. 13, pursuant to the Kansas Open Records Act, the Tribune requested copies of all written and electronic communication between Bellendir, Mellor and Hathcock concerning the Rankin case from Feb. 5 when the story was published, through Feb. 13, after the comment by Bellendir was made.

The exchange
On Jan. 3, Barton County Operations Manager Phil Hathcock sent out a reminder to all county department heads via email to remind employees to be cautious when posting comments or other items to Facebook or any other social media.
“Per county policy, any confidential or negative information that an employee posts to social media relating to Barton County will result in disciplinary action, which could include termination. We should all strive to make Barton County better and be proud of where we are employed.”

Bellendir shared the Tribune’s Feb. 5 report.

On Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 7, Mellor emailed Matt Patzner and Barton County Operations Manager Phillip Hathcock, inquiring if the employee “is still a county employee?” Thursday morning, they replied that the person was still an employee.

Later Thursday, Feb. 8, Mellor responded, including an attachment of the Facebook posts.
“Please see the attached Facebook posts by Barton County employee (redacted) and the related “likes.” I realize that everyone is entitled to their opinion and has the right of free speech, but when the facts are incorrect, libelous, and they violate a county policy, I believe action should be taken. In addition, I will be pursuing legal action.”
It is unclear from the attachment if the posts were by one or more persons, as the names and identifying information were redacted. The posts are no longer visible on Bellendir’s Facebook page.

Post number one:
“This is sad that we have a County Attorney’s Office that does nothing on a case and lets the 180 days expire to bring a case to trial run out and have to dismiss 11 counts that would have sent Rankin to prison probably for the rest of his life. More than likely, we will have to monitor him as a sexual predator until he rapes another under age child.
“The outstanding fact we learned was that County Attorney Amy Mellor and Assistant CA Doug Matthews tried to blame the reason charges were dropped on now Lt. Heather Davis Smith for not returning phone calls to the victim’s mother and not getting reports completed on time, which were all lies.
“To all the citizens of Barton County I personally want you to know that the reason we have so many cases unsolved is not Law Enforcement’s fault it’s the County Attorney’s fault for not filing cases and going to court. It was bad under Doug Matthews, but has gotten worse under Amy Mellor.”

Post number two:
“You wonder why we cannot hire good Law Enforcement Officers, a lot has to do with the fact that you work your ass off putting a cases together and prosecutors don’t do their job. In this case Heather Davis Smith had a job with the KBI and Amy and Doug lied to the background agent telling him she did not return phone calls to the victim nor did she get her reports to them in a timely manner both of which were lies.”

The list of associated likes for the second post was also attached in Mellor’s email, and included a list of 12 people, including Bellendir and David Paden, a member of the Barton County Sheriff’s Department.

Hathcock first responded to Mellor Friday morning, Feb. 9:
“This is truly an unfortunate situation. I have contacted Sheriff Bellendir and notified him of your complaint, unfortunately there is very little myself or Commission can do in this instance. Kansas Attorney General Opinion 2003-15 generally states that the County Commission may not discipline an employee of the Sheriff’s Office and as I am sure you are ware, this holds true for any employee of an elected official. In addition to this, (redacted) is on an approved leave of absence, and has been since November 20, 2017. I will inform the Commission and County Counselor of your complaint on Monday. If you have any further questions, feel free to contact me at any time.”

Hathcock also forwarded the Mellor email to Bellendir Friday morning.
“As discussed in previous conversations, be advised am in receipt of a complaint from Barton County Attorney Amy Mellor regarding several postings authored by (redacted) on Facebook. My position stands as you are an elected official, myself or the County Commission cannot enforce policy on you or your employees as stated in numerous Kansas Attorney General Opinions and Supreme Court Case Nielander. In addition to this, it is my understanding that (redacted) has been on approved leave of absence since November 20, 2017.
Mellor responded that afternoon, “Thank you, Phil. I anticipated that response.”

Sheriff Bellendir responded later that afternoon:
“I agree with your assessment of (redacted) position. (Redacted) received his last paycheck on 11/20/17. He has been on a leave of absence since before that to take care of his wife. I was not aware there is an actual leave of absence form. I do not believe an employee who has been on extended leave with no set return date would be subject to policy. I believe (redacted) may do as he wishes.
In a spirit of cooperation, I have voluntarily deleted the shared post from The Great Bend Tribune and have instructed (redacted) to do the same. I assume you have shared the situation with the County Commissioners. If they have any questions, I will be happy to speak with them.”

The Nielander case referred to by Hathcock in his Feb. 9 email to Mellor concerned a case in Lincoln County. In November 2001, Lincoln County Sheriff Wray Nielander hired part-time Deputy Jack Jackson and less than two months later, on Jan. 1, 2002, he promoted him to full-time. Commissioners objected and twice took action to dismiss Jackson. The second attempt by the board followed adoption of a personnel policy purporting to grant the board exclusive authority to hire and fire county employees.
Nielander disputed their authority and continued to employ Jackson, until commissioners sought and received an injunction against Nielander prohibiting him to employ Jackson, and enjoining Jackson against further employ in Lincoln County in any position. Still, Nielander continued to employ Jackson. The commission changed its employee handbook rules and regulations to reflect their sole discretion in county employment, and still Nielander resisted. Many other twists and turns occurred as the commissioners attempted to exert authority over the sheriff, but in the end the sheriff’s superseding authority over the hiring and firing of his staff was upheld.

According to the Barton County Employee Handbook policy on social media networking and usage, guidelines concerning employees who decide to air work-related complaints or criticisms through social media include:
• Always be respectful, fair and courteous toward others.
• Never post information that could contribute to a hostile work environment based on race, sex, disability, national origin/ancestry, veteran/military status, citizenship, genetic information or any other characteristic protected by law or County policy.
• Avoid using statements, photographs, videos, or audio content that reasonably could be viewed as malicious, obscene, harassing, threatening, bullying, intimidating, similarly inappropriate or unlawful.
• Never disparage or defame the County’s taxpayers, employees or vendors.
• Never post information meant to intentionally harm another’s reputation.

The handbook also notes, “The guidelines are not intended to nor will they be applied to interfere with an employee’s right protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution to speak as a citizen on matters of public concern.” Violations, it is also noted, may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination.
The BCSO has its own social media policy, General Order 2.290. The four page order includes 14 prohibited activities and guidelines. Many target actions that could result in negative outcomes of pending cases, or the safety of family members of employees. Others pertain to issues more in line with self-expression and First Amendment protected speech, which are included in the accompanying sidebar.
The Tribune attempted to reach out to Mellor Monday in order to ask for clarification and what legal action is intended and against whom.
With the Barton County offices closed in observance of the President’s Day holiday that attempt was made via cell phone and by email to Mellor’s county email. Mellor did not respond to the Tribune’s messages prior to press time.