The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 19, 2013

County board served with another suit on attorney pay

Appeal of 2014 budget also objects to staffing levels in county attorney's office

By Mark Fischenich

---- — The ongoing legal dispute between Blue Earth County commissioners and county attorneys continued to roll along Thursday, making an appearance at the Wagon Wheel Cafe where Board Chairman Drew Campbell was served with legal papers notifying him of the latest lawsuit.

County Attorney Ross Arneson has already appealed the board's 2012 and 2013 pay scale for his six assistant county attorneys and won in Martin County District Court. But with the board appealing Judge Robert Walker's ruling that commissioners violated state law in underpaying the attorneys, commissioners followed the same pay scale in passing the county's 2014 budget on Tuesday.

So, two days later, the process literally started again with Campbell receiving the salary appeal from a Blue Earth County deputy. It's happened often enough that Campbell had to do some thinking when asked how many times he's had a deputy stop by with legal papers.

"Let's see here. I was subpoenaed into court to testify. They didn't really serve me with the first one. Then there was the contempt one," he said.

The contempt of court hearing occurred just on Monday after Walker agreed with Arneson that the board should explain why they didn't comply with his order on Sept. 12 that the assistant county attorneys have their salaries raised. The board's outside attorney in what's now a trio of lawsuits (hired because the commissioners typically get their legal advise from Arneson) asked Walker to set aside the motion that the board be held in contempt and stay his order that they adjust attorney salaries until the Minnesota Court of Appeals rules on the board's appeal.

State law requires county boards to undertake more rigorous reviews of the salaries of county attorneys and county sheriff's, who like the board are elected by the voters, and also the salaries of those officials' staff members. Among other things, the commissioners are required to consider the duties, qualifications and experience of the employees and compare their pay to counterparts in similar counties.

Walker ruled that the Blue Earth County Board failed to do that in 2012 and 2013 by essentially following the same evaluation and pay-setting process for the assistant county attorneys as for all other county employees. And Walker said the assistant county attorneys here are paid less than those in most comparable counties.

There is one difference in the latest case. Arneson is also appealing the board's decision to provide only one of the two new employees he requested in 2014. A seventh assistant county attorney was approved, but a legal assistant wasn't.

"Just about every department head wanted more staff," Campbell said. "... I don't believe any of the department heads got everything they wanted. We shorted everybody's request a little bit."

Treating everybody equally, though, might not be a winning argument in court considering the special requirements in state law regarding budgets for sheriffs' and county attorneys' offices.

Assistant County Attorney Christopher Rovney, who has handled much of the legal work in the salary appeals, said the board needs to consider staffing levels at other counties.

"We only have six (legal) assistants," Rovney said, "and most county attorney offices our size have eight or nine or more."

As for the latest legal filing, Rovney said Arneson had little choice. The pay dispute could get resolved in the coming months, but the appeal of the 2014 budget couldn't wait to see if that happens. Under law, it has to be filed within 15 days of the passage of the budget.

Campbell hopes that the appeal of Walker's ruling will bring some resolution to the dispute in 2014.

"I really hope that our appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals will help resolve this," Campbell said. "Because I'm not sure we're going to be able to resolve it ourselves."