Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher wants the county administrator fired for what she says was a break-in at her office to get photos of a kitten she keeps there to comfort the grieving.
Fisher is upset county janitors entered her office where crime scene information is stored without any of her staff present and snapped photographs of the cat for Administrator Joe Mergo
“Why did they need to come in covertly?” she said Tuesday. “To me, this is unimaginable.”
Mergo did nothing wrong and his job is safe, other county leaders said.
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Fisher’s claims are “so ridiculous, over the top,” County Council Chairman Johnny Jeffcoat of Irmo said.
For now, Morticia the kitten can stay as Fisher seeks an exemption to the ban on pets in county buildings.
Meanwhile, new locks installed at Fisher’s office assure only she and her staff can enter unescorted. New security cameras will soon follow.
The fuss comes after Fisher learned county workers went into her office in Lexington unattended last month and took pictures of the kitten for Mergo a few hours before her staff arrived.
“We have all kinds of sensitive evidence,” she said. “For someone to come into this building without my knowledge compromises everything.”
Fisher, who took office nearly 10 months ago, found nothing amiss but said the incident has forced her “to stand my ground” on limiting access to her headquarters.
She also wants Mergo sacked. “This is not about a cat,” she said. “This is about overstepping his power. I think it’s a control issue.”
Mergo did nothing wrong in checking out reports of the kitten being there, Jeffcoat said.
“Absolutely not,” the council chairman said. “He works very hard, very professional, great job. Joe won’t be fired because of the cat.”
Mergo said he asked for photos from staff to verify the presence of the kitten but didn’t ask that it be done secretly.
The photos were taken in the predawn hours since that is when most county offices are cleaned, he said.
“There’s no ill will, no ill intent,” he said.
Pets are barred at many county buildings as protection for the public against allergies, bites and scratches, officials say.
Council members might decide on a waiver for Morticia in a few weeks, Jeffcoat said.
Mergo said he isn’t insisting the kitten go. “If they (council members) are OK with her having it, I’m OK,” he said.
He insists that he and Fisher will work together despite the rift.
But Fisher promised to fight what she sees as interference with the way she runs an office to which she was elected, not appointed by county leaders who put Mergo in charge of day-to-day operations.
She is the county’s first new coroner in nearly four decades, succeeding the late Harry Harman.
Many customs and habits that developed over the years are changing, she said.
Jeffcoat agrees that many practices at the coroner’s office need to be updated, saying better security for confidential information is among them.
But Fisher thinks the conflict over bringing in a cat as comfort for people coping with death shows that some of her ideas are getting short shrift.
“It’s not about a cat,” she said. “It’s about political bullying.”
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483