Columbia County commissioners on Tuesday rejected a recommendation to rehire a code compliance officer fired for entering a woman’s home without permission.
Code Compliance Officer Jimmy Vowell was fired after entering the home of Erica Masters on July 2 while serving a code violation notice. The Civil Service Commission voted unanimously to overturn the firing in October, sending the issue to commissioners for a final decision.
In Tuesday’s hearing, representatives for Vowell and the Columbia County Development Services Division, which employed Vowell, argued for and against the firing.
The Development Services Division’s case was built on confirming, via testimony transcripts, that Vowell had entered the home without Masters’ permission and later lied about the details of the incident.
Vowell’s attorney, Melissa Detchemendy, said Vowell should not have been fired but demoted and/or transferred to another office, as the Civil Service Commission had recommended.
“To give him the death penalty for this violation is extreme,” she said. “We believe that, as did the Civil Service Commission.”
Vowell entered the home because he was concerned about the occupants’ safety, Detchemendy said.
“He was at this house, having been there before,” she said. “The car did not appear to have been moved. There was debris around the tires. There was a smell coming from the house and the door swung open. Yes, he did walk in. He was concerned.”
Tom Cathey, representing the Development Services Division, said not only did Vowell violate policy by walking into the house, he later offered conflicting testimony to supervisors and only admitted to entering the house after being shown surveillance video of him doing so.
“I really hate that he screwed up on July 2,” Cathey said. “And I really hate that he lied about it on July 3. But that’s what happened.”
Commissioners unanimously voted to uphold Vowell’s termination.
Vowell said he does not consider the matter settled and may pursue civil action.
“I still feel like the Civil Service Commission was put in place to hear and evaluate this kind of thing,” he said. “I feel like this goes far beyond a work ethics thing. It’s personal and I am going to keep going.”
Masters, who recently filed a $300,000 lawsuit against Columbia County and Vowell, citing emotional and physical distress, said she feels good about the decision and that it will be important as her case moves forward.
“If they had rehired him it would have been like they had written me off,” she said. “It’s been hard, but my concern here is for the safety of the citizens.”