MANKATO — A two-year dispute over county attorney salaries in Blue Earth County will go unresolved for several more months after county commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to bring the dispute to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
County Administrator Bob Meyer said he is hoping a panel of three appeals court judges will issue a ruling that provides government bodies with guidance on how to deal with two conflicting state statutes. Chris Rovney, assistant county attorney, said Meyer and the commissioners are wasting money on a lawsuit that challenges a ruling that, in similar forms, has been repeatedly upheld by the appeals court.
Since 2011 County Attorney Ross Arneson has been urging County Board members to increase the salaries for the attorneys working in his department. He used statistics showing his attorneys are paid substantially less than attorneys in similar-size counties while employees in other departments receive salaries above those averages.
State law requires county commissioners to consider the responsibilities, qualifications and performance of county attorneys when setting their salaries. Appeals court rulings that have resulted from disputes similar to the one in Blue Earth County also have required commissioners to ensure their county attorney salaries are similar to the salaries of attorneys in counties with a similar size and crime rate.
State law also allows county attorneys, sheriffs and other elected officials to challenge the department budgets set by county boards. Ross Arneson did that in 2012 and 2013 after his requests for higher attorney salaries were denied. Rovney said it's likely Arneson will have to file a third challenge in 2014 because the appeals court case won't be resolved before that budget is set.
When the dispute was brought to arbitration by the county attorney's union, the arbitrator ruled in the County Board's favor saying the salary requests were too high. That decision was appealed by Arneson. District Court Judge Robert Walker overturned the arbitrator's decision, saying the County Board was not following the law.
Walker also used salary data to show Blue Earth county's attorneys were earning $20,000 to $30,000 less annually than attorneys in similar counties. Rovney said the top annual salary for attorneys in his office is about $77,000.
County Board commissioners closed their meeting to the public Tuesday while they discussed the possibility of an appeal. After about 40 minutes, they opened their meeting again and voted unanimously to appeal Walker's ruling.
"I would like to see three other judges take a look at this and make a decision," Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg said after the commissioners returned to their public meeting room and passed the resolution.
Following the judge's ruling requiring attorney pay raises could cost the county more than $100,000 per year. That was one of the reasons commissioners decided to spend between $5,000 and $7,000 in legal fees to pay for the appeal, Meyer said.
The County Board followed one set of state statutes by going to arbitration and won, he said. Arneson used another set of state statues to challenge the decision and received an opposite ruling.
"We really need the appeals court to look at these two statutes and decide how a public agency is supposed to comply with them," Meyer said.
Rovney said the appeal is a waste of time and money because Walker's court ruling clearly showed how the arbitrator's decision didn't follow the law. The ruling cited many of the same problems Arneson has been citing since he first requested raises two years ago, he said. Rovney also believes the argument the county is planning to use has been tested before in the Court of Appeals.
"It seems like they are intent to throw money down a black pit," he said. "It is just a waste of money for them to litigate because I don't believe they will be successful. They're basically going to have to ask the Court of Appeals to rule it has been wrong on every other case like this that it has decided."
Arneson as county attorney is usually the attorney Meyer and the County Board look to for legal advice, but a special attorney had to be hired for the dispute due to Arneson's conflict of interest.
Rovney, who prosecutes criminal cases for Arneson, handled the legal work for the appeal to Walker. He said he isn't going to have time to handle the work that will be needed for the appeal. So more county money will be used to pay for a special attorney to represent Arneson's employees.
"We're going to have to hire a lawyer," Rovney said. "If we don't, we're not going to be able to prosecute any cases."