The Bon Homme County, South Dakota sheriff’s race took a bizarre turn for the challenging deputy sheriff whose significant lead came to a dead halt after securing the majority vote at the Republican Primary on Tuesday. With voter tabulations of 878 (Deputy Mark Maggs) to 331 (Sheriff Lenny Gramkow), it would seem a lock. But not so fast, gestured incumbent Sheriff Gramkow. Exactly one full minute after Maggs was walking away with the Republican candidate win and headed for the official November 6 election, his boss handed him the pink slip and said goodbye. I guess that is one way to eliminate the competition.
Deputy Maggs, a 31-year-old husband and father of four toddlers was given the following letter, with instructions to hand in his county-owned law enforcement gear.
Although it may look foolish, childish and reminiscent of being a sore loser, Sheriff Gramkow, by law, had the right to terminate sheriff’s Deputy Mark Maggs…and he exercised that legal right. As you can see in the termination letter, no reason was given for Deputy Maggs’ termination. Like all other states but Montana, South Dakota recognizes itself as an “at will” employer with respect to law enforcement deputies. Simply put, the elected sheriffs need no reason to fire a deputy at will, whether they have cause or not.
Nolo.com defines the “at will” employment concept as such: “An at-will employee can be fired at any time, for any reason (except for a few illegal reasons). If the employer decides to let you go, that’s the end of your job—and you have very little limited legal rights to fight your termination.”
On its face, it appears Sheriff Gramkow fired Deputy Maggs as a perceived threat to his tenure as county sheriff. No other source is stipulating any other fireable offense nor is Deputy Maggs publicizing substantive details related to the termination of his employment.
One thing which is evident in Sheriff Gramkow’s termination letter: It is not written on official Bon Homme County Sheriff’s Office letterhead. Ordinarily, that is a given in such matters among law enforcement agencies, often called the “decommission doc.”
Another factor is that the letter was apparently pre-written, with a time-stamp down to one full minute after the polls officially closed at 19:00 hours. Furthermore, the Argus Leader reported that Maggs “received a message from the sheriff Tuesday afternoon to attend a mandatory meeting at 7 p.m. that night”—exactly at the moment the polls closed for tabulations.
That implies Sheriff Gramkow either had a feeling he was going to be unseated pursuant to the polls and thus wrote the termination letter in advance or he is a wizard typist. Unless he voice-activated his letter (in all caps) without glaring error, it is not likely the latter. The Argus Leader indicated the final poll results were made official at 21:45 hours, almost three hours after Maggs was fired by his boss/political opposition.
So, where does it go from here? Wisely, Deputy Maggs has declined to render public statements to the media, instead opting for a meeting with the Bon Homme County Commission (BHCC). The Commission is the sheriff’s boss, so it behooves the governing body to consider the law, the sheriff’s reasoning for firing Maggs (although it appears blatantly obvious), and redress as bad publicity pours in.
As a voice of the citizens of Bon Homme County, the Commission must unequivocally address the voters’ rights along with the sheriff’s rights/authority regarding “at will employment” while weighing ostensible political vindictiveness.
Danielle Ferguson wrote, “Maggs wasn’t too surprised at the termination. He told Gramkow he intended to run the day he took out a petition, and termination had been brought up in that conversation.” If nothing else is worthy, the sheriff surely kept his word.
“Maggs is now in a tricky position, in the limbo of waiting to take over the office from which he was just fired. Maggs joined the department in 2013. He chatted with Bon Homme County commissioners Thursday, he said, who told him they will help him figure out a plan of action. The commission plans to have a special meeting next Thursday to discuss the matter further,” Ferguson elucidated. I can’t imagine anything other than an amicable fix while letting things simmer down as Maggs prepares to assume office in January.
One more pertinent point: The Bon Homme County law enforcement agency is comprised of the sheriff, two road deputies, and five jailers who also happen to do dispatching duties. In that context and absent outrageous conduct or criminality, it would seem ludicrous to fire any personnel, depleting a large chunk of agency resources with a few keystrokes in a term letter. Bottom line? It’s political/personal.
According to KELOLAND Media, the backlash is still mounting. Bon Homme County sheriff’s Deputy Brian McGuire claims “people are using 911 to contact the department about the [sheriff’s] move. He says the calls could be interfering with the department’s response to actual emergency calls.” As small as this department is, the buzz must be deafening and derailing normal operations.
And if phone lines were burdened by folks’ responses, Deputy McGuire said his agency considered taking down its Facebook page “after receiving so many negative comments.” It appears not only the Bon Homme locals are astounded but citizens from across the United States also rebuked Sheriff Gramkow’s maneuver.
A Washington Post report highlights that a roving petition is garnering signatures (over 1,600 as of this composition)encouraging the county commission to reinstate Maggs. Although initially meek about the matter, Maggs has since opened up, saying “When I got back to my election party and told my wife, she was very emotional. It hit her hard. We knew that [being fired] meant coming at the end of the month we’d be losing health insurance,” WHNT News reported.
Per the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, a local newspaper, Bon Homme County Commissioner Russell Jelsma claims the firing of Deputy Maggs will likely surface at the upcoming commission meeting on Thursday. Given the widespread rebuke of Sheriff Gramkow, I suspect the list of those wishing to speak will be lengthy…and supplemented by Maggs’ voice of reason bolstered by legitimate poll results.
Writing for Inforum.com, Mark Andersen reported “Maggs will almost certainly win the general election in November and take charge of the sheriff’s office in January.” Ding-ding!
In its voter registration numbers’ breakdown, Bon Homme County has 2,033 Republican voters, 1,246 Democrats and 619 independents among an approximate county population of 7,200.
Paring it down, Maggs received overwhelming voter support, thus, although he may be out of a job until November’s election, his wife and four young children will still be able to boast a husband/dad who stuck by his principled nature while getting by with a little help from his friends. Family, friends and perfect strangers on Facebook have suggested setting up a GoFundMe page in the interim.
All is not lost. To the contrary, victory is in the bag, albeit with a temporary bout of heartburn. Despite any hiatus, Maggs is still, by far, the chosen sheriff-elect.
Incidentally, “Bonhomme” is French for “good man.”