The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 6, 2014

County Board held in contempt of court

Judge orders County Board to adjust attorney salaries by mid-February

By Mark Fischenich

---- — MANKATO — A district court judge Monday held the Blue Earth County Board in contempt of court and ordered the commissioners to set a new and higher salary schedule for the assistant county attorneys — the latest loss for the board in a lingering fight over what it pays the county's prosecutors.

Martin County District Court Judge Robert Walker found that the board struck out on virtually every argument its attorney made in arguing that the county shouldn't have to follow Walker's Sept. 12 order to adjust the salaries. That order followed Walker's ruling that the board acted in an "arbitrary, capricious, oppressive and in unreasonable disregard of the responsibilities" of the attorneys in setting salaries that were substantially less than what is paid to assistant county attorneys in comparable counties.

Walker gave the board 60 days to obey his order, and the assistant attorneys sought the contempt ruling when Nov. 11 came with no board action. The board did decide to appeal Walker's ruling in the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, but that didn't absolve commissioners of following the Sept. 12 order.

"The Court believes that due to the Board's complete disregard for the Sept. 12, 2013, Order that contempt of court is the most effective means at inducing compliance with the Court Order," the Fairmont judge wrote Monday.

Walker didn't take the most drastic measure possible in a contempt ruling — jailing the commissioners until they comply with the order. But he did give them a much shorter window this time to adjust the salaries of the six assistant attorneys working under Blue Earth County Attorney Ross Arneson — ordering them to comply by Feb. 15.

Walker's contempt ruling Monday detailed the numerous legal factors required for someone to be held in contempt and found that the board met them all. For instance, a judge's order is required to be clear if someone is going to be rightfully held in contempt for not following it. Walker ruled that it should have been perfectly obvious to the board that the 60 days to comply began on the day the order was issued.

"The Board attempts to argue that there was no specificity as to when the 60 days began, but the Court finds that (the order) is clear with respect to the fact that the 60 days began to run on the date the order was filed, which was September 12, 2013; therefore the Board had until November 11, 2013, to comply with the Court Order," he wrote.

And he reminded the board that their appeal of his ruling doesn't mean his order could be ignored. The new salary schedule for the attorneys (who currently top out at roughly $80,000 a year but earn as much as $20,000 less than counterparts in similar Minnesota counties) can be created by the board now, Walker stated, and any pay adjustment can begin — with potential retroactive pay and interest — once the Court of Appeals rules later this year.