Fireworks came early to Seward County this year.
The Seward County Commissioners’ July 2 meeting featured a clash between the board and the county attorney. The meeting reached its peak on the last item on the agenda: the discussion of a recommendation from the salary study committee that was facing numerous obstacles.
The commissioners formed a salary study committee in February and meetings were held through June. The committee was appointed by Chairman John Culver and consisted of Commissioners Mike Mundhenke and Becky Paulsen, County Clerk Sherry Schweitzer, Human Resources Director Brea Ehmen and Detention Center Director Maria Hatfield.
The committee was to do a comparative study with other counties in order to guide the discussion and action over potential salary increases for county employees. Salary studies are done often, but the Seward County committee was an attempt to do a study for no cost to taxpayers after a previous study failed to be finished in time to be relevant and cost the county over $22,000.
Schweitzer said she and the rest of the committee had good intentions.
“We really just wanted to do good for our employees. We wanted to be able to give good wages but keep the taxpayer in mind so we wouldn’t have to pay for another salary study,” Schweitzer said.
This committee faced a complaint brought forth by the county attorney’s office that the meetings violated the Open Meetings Act because they weren’t properly advertised.
Previously, Schweitzer said she had posted the meeting agenda in three public places, as required by law, and sent a schedule of the meetings to the county attorney.
The meetings were advertised, however, as a subcommittee, not an advisory committee. The way the committee was set up—both with members of the board and members not on the board—it was an advisory committee.
The complaint led to confusion over what was needed to remedy the complaint and more confusion on what information from the study legally could be used after the remedy, which was a June 18 meeting to reintroduce all previous material in a public meeting.
Another issue was that the study changed after the June 18 meeting, which confused those who didn’t attend meetings after June 18. The committee found certain positions could not be compared to those who carry the same title in Lancaster County because of differences in size and responsibilities. The study used other positions for comparison to produce more accurate results. According to Schweitzer, this only changed a small number of results, but the committee received complaints this was in violation of the Open Meetings Act again.
The matter was on the July 2 agenda.
During the meeting, Culver began the discussion by reading a pre-written statement that announced the dissolution of the salary study committee and then expressed his frustration with the legal obstacles.
“It was just a starting point, or more of an idea of a chance for local input for pay rate without paying thousands of dollars for an outside source,” Culver said.
Culver also spoke of his frustrations with the complaints delivered by the county attorney’s office. It was then he declared that he was dissolving the committee.
“As for right now I’m going to dissolve the committee, discarding all the hard work they have done as a result of the constant threats from the county attorney’s office of legal action against them and the Board of Commissioners,” Culver said.
Culver said the dissolution will hinder the chances at employees of Seward County making a better wage, but ultimately the complaint from the county attorney’s office and the succeeding events were too much for the committee.
“When I started this, I never dreamt it would turn into this situation of people responding with such hostility and foul language and obstruction to progress so much,” Culver said.
Culver ended his statement by saying that the salary decisions would continue with an optional percentage increase.
“As of right now, for next year’s budget, we’re directing department heads can allow up to a 3% merit raise, or nothing, at their discretion based on performance evaluations of their employees,” Culver said.
Culver said his statements and decisions should not be attributed to the entire board of commissioners.
“It was my experiment that I thought would work and it failed miserably. This is nothing to reflect on the board. The board really had no input. I was just hearing everything that was going on, and I just made the decision this is what we’re doing,” Culver said.
After Culver finished his remarks, he attempted to move on from the matter, but never called anything to action to dissolve the committee. County Attorney Wendy Elston spoke from the public seating and asked if there would be a motion called to formally declare the limited percentage increase as the official decision.
“Your statement is inefficient to take action,” Elston said.
Mundhenke moved to approve the optional 3% standard of increase in salaries and the board approved it unanimously.
Then, Seward County Treasurer Robert Dahms turned to Elston to express his opinion.
“Thanks, county attorney’s office, for hurting 150 employees. We sure appreciate it,” Dahms said.
On July 8, Dahms said he made this statement because the salary study committee showed that many county employees should be getting much higher than a 3% increase, but Dahms said a county attorney’s office employee didn’t enjoy their results.
“This whole thing came down because one employee in the county attorney’s office didn’t get what they wanted,” Dahms said over the phone.
After the statement Dahms made in the meeting, Elston said the legality of the committee was never brought up to her after her visit during the June 18 meeting where she gave legal guidance on how the salary study committee could stay in compliance with the Open Meetings Act. She said she didn’t know about Culver’s claim of foul language, and said he never talked to her about it.
“I provided you the appropriate legal advice that I had to ethically provide you as related to the Open Meetings Act,” Elston said.
Elston stood by the claim that the initial meetings not properly being made open to the public were in violation of the Open Meetings Act and that she did her best to support the committee and give legal advice for all following meetings. Elston said she never intended for the committee to dissolve.
“This is government, not a private business. Everything should be open. So the fact that you can ask for information should not be taken against an employee or a member of the public. It should be treated fairly and with respect,” Elston said.
Elston said she was unhappy with Culver’s statement placing the blame on her office.
“I have people here that have been to the meetings and have worked with me and know that I am not somebody that is going to use vulgar language in a public setting. It’s pretty upsetting that you make that statement and then have the newspaper here. I just think it’s just really inappropriate,” Elston said.
Culver said he knows Elston is staying within her duties to address the complaint, but said the issue was becoming too hard to understand. Culver said he was given conflicting answers from Deputy County Attorney Barb Armstead about the violation complaint and what meetings were held legally or illegally.
“It was in the meetings after we were made aware that somebody from the public had a comment and I asked Barb if she had a complaint and she said yes. And we were called later, and Barb said no, we don’t have a complaint. You were doing your job. But the complexity of doing your job was throwing so many wrenches in there that we couldn’t take the data and discern what was from the good meeting or from the bad meeting because they overlap, no matter what we did. It doesn’t mean you were out of line or anything was wrong. We just can’t decide what was good to keep,” Culver said.
Elston said the commissioners failed to ask her about any confusion.
“Why didn’t you ask? Not one of you asked that. We’re supposed to be on the same team. Nobody ever said you couldn’t use the information,” Elston said.
Armstead stepped in to clarify the confusion on the matter of the complaint.
“I got a call from the newspaper and the reporter asked if a complaint was filed. I ended the conversation saying that a legal document had not been filed as a complaint, but we had received a complaint. There’s a difference,” Armstead said.
Elston said she supported the salary study committee, despite what Culver’s statement said, and that is why she attended the June 18 meeting.
“To say that I’m trying to somehow sabotage the system is completely incorrect. We just went through and made sure that everybody was treated fairly. It just really floors me today to hear that you’re scrapping the whole thing because the county attorney’s office was a problem when all we’ve been trying to do is to lead you through the right and proper process that’s legal so that you don’t have problems down the road,” Elston said.
Elston also addressed the idea Dahms mentioned, which was that she was against the committee because of the financial decision that would affect her office. She said she was not concerned with the decision from the committee’s findings.
“Frankly, I don’t care. You can pay whatever offices whatever is in your budget. My job is to make sure you’re doing it evenly and fairly across the board because we are a government system, not a private system,” Elston said.
Dahms suggested bringing in an outside attorney to make sure no actions are being taken for self-interest. Elston offered to get the opinion of the Attorney General.
“I can get a letter from the Attorney General by the end of the day,” Elston said.
Culver insisted on stopping the debate to halt any further argument.
“It’s just too much to bear,” Culver said.
Elston said she still wanted Culver to retract his statement about the use of vulgar language and harassment by her office, but Culver said the remark about the vulgar language was referring to other employees and comments from the county and the atmosphere from previous meetings.
Detention Center Director Maria Hatfield then said the lack of communication and transparency were the issues.
“There’s no open communications within groups, so there’s a lot of argument. There’s common courtesy to be open and forward with all members of a group,” Hatfield said.
Hatfield said she wanted the tension between the board and the county attorney’s office to be set aside.
“We need to learn to find a way to work together as one entity instead of everybody pinning things against each other because it’s become a ridiculous thing. It’s a mockery to all the departments in the county and somebody needs to stand up and make sure that all entities are compliant and not being childish. I’ve seen it from more than just one department,” Hatfield said.
Veterans Service Officer Jeff Baker also said he didn’t believe there was ill intent happening.
“From sitting back here listening to this conversation from the beginning, I don’t necessarily think that it was all this intent to derail the process. That June 18 meeting was very good. I think every official walked away from that meeting feeling very, very good and that we had been listened to, that positions had been considered and that the committee had made the changes that were meant to be appropriate. Then we came to the next meeting to make the motion to review that and it was just completely thrown out. A lot of county officials weren’t at that meeting because we had walked away from the meeting on June 18 feeling very good. And so there was a little bit of emotion, I think, that was going on during that time,” Baker said.
After Baker’s statement, Culver called an end to the discussion and moved to adjourn.
After the meeting, Elston told the Seward County Independent she was blindsided by Culver’s opening statement and had not received any communication about the new study changes or dissolution of the committee from the board. She said it was her duty to respond to the complaint.
“I couldn’t just sit back and do nothing,” Elston said.
Elston said she was in full compliance with the committee and felt that after the June 18 meeting there were only a handful of questions left to be answered at the June 24 meeting, but she wasn’t there.
Schweitzer said she believes the committee was dissolved because of the negativity surrounding the study and the results that came with it. She said committee members were harassed and threatened by email and verbally. Schweitzer said the foul language Culver mentionedwas from a phone call to a committee member.
“I can’t speak for the other committee members, but I lost sleep over the issue,” Schweitzer said.
Elston said she hopes the situation doesn’t leave a lasting impact on Seward County’s governance.
“I don’t want this to be a discouragement to open government. I don’t want employees to think there will be retaliation if they ask for information,” Elston said.