The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 15, 2013

County confident contempt order won't stand

County Board responds to judge's order for contempt hearing

By Mark Fischenich

---- — MANKATO — One day after a district court judge ordered the entire Blue Earth County Board to appear before him or risk being jailed, County Administrator Bob Meyer said county officials are confident the matter will be resolved and that the Dec. 18 contempt of court hearing won't be held.

The contempt hearing is the latest in an on-going dispute between the board and the Blue Earth County Attorney's office over the pay scale for assistant county attorneys. The disagreement resulted in a salary appeal, which is allowed under state law for the employees of elected county positions such as county attorney.

After hearing testimony from Meyer and all five county commissioners this summer, Martin County Judge Robert Walker ruled that the board had violated state law in setting the salaries of the assistant county attorneys and had been illegally underpaying them in recent years. On Sept. 12, Walker ordered the board to develop a plan to adjust the pay of the attorneys and provide it to him within 60 days.

The board voted in October to appeal Walker's decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals and failed to comply with Walker's order within 60 days, prompting Assistant County Attorney Chris Rovney — who has handled much of the legal work in the pay appeal — to request on Wednesday that Walker find the board in contempt of court.

Walker responded on Thursday with his order that the board appear before him on Dec. 18 to "show cause, if any you have, why the Court should not" hold the board in contempt of court "and for such other relief as the Court may deem just and equitable."

Meyer said the board's legal counsel in the case, Scott Lepak of Coon Rapids, is confident that the board's decision to appeal and paperwork he filed related to the appeal will persuade Walker that the contempt order would be inappropriate and that the Dec. 18 hearing won't be necessary.

"He's assured us that the proper communication will occur," Meyer said. "... The issue will be dismissed and we won't have a hearing in December."

Meyer suggested that the contempt request by Rovney "unfairly brings negativity upon the board and the entire organization."

"It appears that this is the case of a disgruntled employee inappropriately taking up the time of a busy court system," Meyer said at a courthouse press conference also attended by Board Chairman Drew Campbell.

Mankato attorney Kenneth White, hired by the county attorneys to represent them in the appeal portion of the case, said the county board erred in ignoring Walker's order requiring they respond within 60 days. Even when appealing his decision, the board still needed to take action related to Walker's order.

"If the appellant doesn't want the order enforced, it's incumbent on the appellant to do something ...," White said.

In some cases, the appellant posts a bond large enough to cover ordered payments — plus interest — if the appeal is unsuccessful, he said. In other cases, the party that won at the district court level can be asked to agree to not seek enforcement of the order until the appeal is complete. In any case, some arrangement needed to be made that satisfies the district court judge.

As for Meyer's criticism of the attorneys' decision to seek the contempt hearing, Rovney said the board and the administration are attempting to deflect attention from the fact that they failed to follow court rules.

"I'm flabbergasted that they would even do that," Rovney said. "And I think it speaks badly of their continued conduct in this whole matter."

Rovney said he and his fellow assistant county attorneys, throughout the process, were attempting only to require the county to follow state law in setting salaries. And the district court judge sided with the attorneys in his September decision and again with the requested contempt hearing.

"They're the ones who haven't complied with the judge's order," Rovney said of the board. "So they're the ones wasting the court's time. Secondly, it wasn't my (contempt) order. It was the district court's order."

Meyer said he couldn't speculate on why Walker agreed to Rovney's request for the contempt hearing order, only that he's confident the judge will cancel the hearing. It's possible word of the board's appeal didn't reach him for some reason.

"I can't speak to whether the communication flowed in the right way or not," Meyer said.