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About 4 p.m. Tuesday, Fred Thomas embarked on a new career.
Thomas will step down next week as chairman of Lancaster County Council for a new position, that of magistrate judge. Thomas has served on County Council for more than seven years. He previously served as vice chairman and is the current chairman of council.
He will soon fill the magistrate position left vacant by Judge Debra Dawkins, who retired April 30 due to medical reasons.
Thomas was nominated by both S.C. Sens. Mick Mulvaney, R-District 16, and Vincent Sheheen, D-District 27.
As one of 15 candidates for the post, Thomas participated in several interviews and tests. After achieving high scores and clearing a background check by the Governor’s Office, Thomas was nominated and approved Tuesday afternoon by the state Senate.
“It’s something I want to do,” Thomas said. “I’ve always had an interest in all things legal and this is the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s an opportunity to still remain in public service.”
As magistrate, Thomas will be preside over traffic charges, bond hearings and some criminal proceedings.
Dawkins, whom Thomas is replacing, said she couldn’t be happier about her successor. She said Thomas was her preferred choice to fill the role.
“Fred is a people-person. Fred has common sense and he’s also qualified for it,” she said. “He’s a fine gentleman and he knows a lot of people.”
Dawkins worked in the magistrate’s office for more than 30 years, first as a clerk and then was appointed judge in 1999. She suffered a stroke last July and decided earlier this year to step down.
“It was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed working for the county,” she said. “I think Fred Thomas is a very, very good person to fulfill the position of magistrate. And I wish him the best.”
Thomas is ‘extremely excited’
Thomas will begin his training for the magistrate position July 1. He said this will involve several classes and plenty of hands-on training, all of which he said “will make me an extremely competent magistrate.”
There is no official timeline for his training, or specific date for when he will officially become a magistrate, but Thomas said those details are being developed.
He has already drafted a letter to County Council that says his resignation will become effective upon taking his oath as a magistrate.
“It will happen simultaneously,” Thomas said. “My swearing-in will trigger my resignation.”
Even though Thomas has already been appointed, he said he will hold off on being sworn in as a magistrate until after Monday’s council meeting.
At that meeting, council will hear final reading of the county’s budget, and with one council member already expected to be off that week, Thomas did not want to leave council at such an important time.
“I didn’t want to leave council without having at least five votes on an issue so important as the budget,” he said.
Thomas said council will have its hands full this year with the dual problems of a declining economy and a quickly growing community.
“Council’s job will not be easy by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “It’s going to take a concerted effort by the entire council, entire staff and entire community to make sure it’s done properly.”
Thomas said he will miss the “lifelong friendships” he’s made, though he looks forward to his new role.
“I’m extremely excited,” he said. “This is an exciting time for me, but in no way was I dissatisfied with council. This was a much more positive direction for me to head. This is a career.”
Mulvaney supports Thomas
Mulvaney said candidates were sought through various groups that have a great deal of contact with the Magistrate’s Office, such as members of the bar, various councils and the sheriff’s office.
There are several requirements for becoming a candidate for magistrate.
First, a candidate must have a four-year college degree. They also must pass a strenuous competency and logistical-thinking test.
Mulvaney said the pool was narrowed to three finalists, each of whom he said were “very strong.”
“I was very pleased with the caliber of candidates we had,” Mulvaney said. “And I’m very excited about Fred as a magistrate. I’m absolutely comfortable that we got the very best candidate for this position. Frederick is beyond reproach when it comes to service. He had the strongest background and, not surprisingly, he had the highest test scores.”
Mulvaney admits it’s strange to be the one recommending Thomas, especially after a heated argument the two had at a County Council meeting in March.
Mulvaney had been invited to the meeting to speak about economic-development legislation. They were to discuss the issue of economic incentives used to reward businesses who move into the county, but the discussion fell apart as Thomas began questioning Mulvaney’s motives behind a bill that could potentially eliminate these incentives.
The men argued openly during the meeting, with Thomas expressing displeasure about Mulvaney’s actions and Mulvaney responding to the accusations.
After the meeting, Mulvaney said he was baffled about why the meeting was even called, saying “that was the strangest hour and a half I’ve ever been a part of.”
Despite those events, Mulvaney said he realized that Thomas would be a good fit for the magistrate position.
“To be perfectly honest, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t (initially) have skepticism about Fred Thomas,” Mulvaney said. “But I’m absolutely satisfied after speaking with County Council, and with the solicitor’s office, that he has the exact demeanor we’re looking for as a judge.
“If anything, that exchange might help him be a better judge. I think Fred understood it wasn’t just me and him. We’re very candid with each other. This drew home to him the role of his position, the way it plays in the community,” he said. “It’s driven home the gravity of his position and it will help make him a tremendous judge. I cannot fault his dedication to public service.”
After analyzing the situation, and after looking at all the candidates, Mulvaney said Thomas was the best choice.
“At the end of the day, I don’t care if he’s the Democratic chair of County Council or if we had a public fight. I’m certain he’ll be the perfect choice for the magistrate,” Mulvaney said. “He’s a very likable guy and it’s an easy decision.”
Thomas thanked Mulvaney for the recommendation to his new role.
“I’m very grateful to Sen. Mulvaney for placing his trust in me,” Thomas said. “And I look forward to joining an already strong team of magistrates led by Judge (Jackie) Pope.”
Who will fill his seat?
Once Thomas steps down from council, there will be a need to fill his vacant seat.
Thomas said there will be a special election, a process that is regulated by a specific county statute. That statute also dictates when people can file for the position.
As for who will fill his seat, Thomas has heard several names of interested people, but declined to mention any of them.
“I have been advised to avoid any and all things political, so I guess I should say, ‘No comment,’” Thomas said.
Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at email@example.com or at (803) 416-8416.