Hancock County settles lawsuit

NEW CUMBERLAND – Hancock County commissioners have settled a lawsuit with a sheriff’s deputy who claimed he was unfairly passed over for a promotion in 2008.

The settlement clears the way for Deputy Dezso Polgar to be elevated to the rank of sergeant – something he has sought for nearly five years.

“I’m excited. I’ve been waiting for it for a while,” said Polgar, who also is the Hancock County medical examiner and the Chester-Newell Ambulance director of operations.

On Wednesday, commissioners approved without comment a request from Sheriff Ralph Fletcher to pay Polgar $7,500 in back salary and $7,500 in legal fees. They also approved Fletcher’s request to promote Polgar to sergeant, bringing the department’s complement of sergeants to six.

Although Polgar must still take the oath of office, his promotion is retroactive to September 2008, Polgar said.

“I should have been promoted because I had taken the sergeant’s test and was in line to be promoted when they declared a vacancy in September of that year,” he said.

When Polgar was not promoted, he and another deputy, Matthew Harvey, filed suit in Hancock County Circuit Court against the commissioners and the Hancock County Civil Service Commission.

The suit alleged that Polgar and Harvey had been unfairly passed over for promotion to sergeant by then-Sheriff Michael White. The vacancy was created after White demoted Sgt. Mark Cowden to the rank of deputy first class in February 2008. Cowden was being disciplined for violating the county’s policy on personal use of office computers, the lawsuit said.

When sheriff’s Sgt. Bob Connors, a member of the Army Reserve, was deployed to Iraq, White re-elevated Cowden to the rank of sergeant – a decision that was later reinforced by the civil service commission, according to the suit. However, Polgar and Harvey said they were in line to be promoted based on their placement on the civil service list.

The deputies appealed the civil service commission’s decision in March 2009, and their case languished in the courts until now. A settlement agreement signed by Circuit Court Judge David J. Sims said all of Polgar’s claims were dismissed. Harvey’s case is still pending.

Fletcher, who succeeded White as sheriff after winning election last November, said he pursued a settlement with Polgar because he felt it was in the best interest of the sheriff’s department.

“I agreed that he should have been promoted and, as sheriff, was unwilling to continue this fight,” he said. “I brought the attorneys together and said, ‘Let’s find a way to amicably settle this.’ It wasn’t worth it to me to continue fighting something that we were going to lose anyway.”

Fletcher said the settlement also fits into his plans for restructuring the sheriff’s department’s rank system – something that he is pursuing in cooperation with the civil service commission.

(Huba can be contacted at shuba@reviewonline.com)