In a relatively rare occurrence, the salary dispute between the board and the attorneys ended up in court because Minnesota law allows elected officials such as sheriffs and county attorneys to appeal budgets for their offices. Blue Earth County Attorney Ross Arneson, after asking the board to boost salaries for his assistants since 2011, filed appeals for both 2012 and 2013.
County Administrator Bob Meyer and all five commissioners — Drew Campbell, Vance Stuehrenberg, Mark Piepho, Will Purvis and Kip Bruender — were served subpoenas by sheriff's deputies requiring them to answer questions under oath at a court hearing in May. Walker determined that their testimony indicated Arneson's complaints were valid.
"We were disappointed, obviously, but we respect the court's decision," said Meyer, who expects the board to seek legal advice before deciding whether to take the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
Assistant County Attorney Chris Rovney handled much of the legal work in the case and was pleased that Walker agreed with the attorneys' positions in virtually every regard.
"The arguments we made from day one have all been supported by the court's decision," Rovney said. "From day one, we just wanted the County Board to follow the law."
State law requires county commissioners, when setting salaries for assistant county attorneys, to examine the duties, responsibilities, qualifications and performance of the attorneys. Court rulings stemming from similar disputes in other counties determined that county commissioners are also required to ensure the salaries are in line with "similarly situated counties" in the state.
Arneson, in discussions and emails with Meyer and the County Board, made clear that state law mandates that the County Board handle assistant county attorney salaries differently than other employees of the county.
"It just simply declined to do so," Walker determined.
Walker, assigned to the case because Blue Earth County judges work regularly with the county attorneys, also determined that "the board had a limited and vague understanding of the duties of assistant county attorneys."