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Judge says ‘wiggle room’ allowed

During the Aug. 16 hearing for the lawsuit Clerk and Master Brenda Sneyd filed against Washington County, Senior Judge Walter C. Kurtz said the Legislature gives each county “wiggle room” in deciding whether to award a 10 percent pay increase to clerks who serve more than one court.
Arthur Fowler, Sneyd’s counsel, agreed but said the state and federal constitutions also require clerks in the same classification to be paid the same amount.
“So your argument is, if the county raises one, it has to raise the other,” Kurtz said.
“You just told me five minutes ago you had no problem with the Legislature giving the county commission this wiggle room.”
Fowler clarified his point, saying, “I think the Legislature is saying we’ve given you (the county) that wiggle room, but you don’t have the authority to rewrite the classification.”
In addition, Fowler said the classification in the statute is based on the size of the county, not the duties performed by the clerks.
Sneyd is suing the county for the same 10 percent raise awarded to Circuit Court Clerk Karen Guinn in 2005. If successful, Sneyd could receive approximately $35,000 – $40,000 in back pay.
Washington County’s counsel Erick Herrin contends the discretion given to the county is to allow for the time and responsibilities involved in serving more than one court.
There has been no factual dispute from Fowler that Guinn manages a significantly larger number of cases, employees, officials and budgetary dollars.
He maintains the reason commissioners did not award the raise to Sneyd is the private income she earns in fees while serving as a special commissioner, a position she was appointed to by Chancellor Richard Johnson. In addition to her $73,866 salary, Sneyd earned $42,487 last year through her duties as special commissioner.
“They have said if you will remit the fees, you will get the raises,” Fowler said.
“It’s illegal, it’s against public policy, and it’s extortion.”
Herrin said the county fully recognizes the laws for special commissioner fees, and is in no way tying to address Sneyd’s receiving and keeping them.
At the same time, he said, “This does not oblige Washington County to applaud that use of judicial authority.”
Kurtz said he will take the matter under advisement and issue a written memorandum with his decision.
Herrin said that decision could go one of four ways.
The judge could decide there is no cause of action because the statute gives the discretion to the county commission as a matter of law, and dismiss the case.
Kurtz could also rule on summary judgment, which means he would look at the facts, decide there was a rational and objective basis for the county’s decision, and uphold it.
If the judge finds Fowler’s constitutional argument to be valid, he could decide the county did not have the authority to give a pay increase to Guinn only.
Another possibility relates to the classification argument. Kurtz could order the county to give the raise to Sneyd, or send the decision to the county commission with the choice of giving the increase to both or neither.
“It’s in the judge’s hands now, but there is no doubt in my mind that he understands the issues,” Herrin said.
Kurtz does not have a deadline to respond, but once his order is entered, Sneyd and the county have only 30 days to appeal.
After that, the judge’s decision is final.