By Michael Howell
Last Tuesday, April 1, the County Commissioners decided not to fill the vacant position of Chief Deputy in the Treasurer’s office and use the vacancy savings to pay for stipends for two “lead” positions instead, one in the Tax Office and one in the Motor Vehicle Division, that would bring their wages to $14.50 per hour. The stipend is defined as the difference between the employee’s current wages and $14.50 per hour wages.
The meeting was the continuation of a previous meeting at which Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg, who is currently acting as Treasurer in the absence of Treasurer Valerie Stamey who has been placed on administrative leave, asked the commissioners to consider paying two individuals in the treasurer’s office for the extra duties they have taken on in order to keep the office functioning in the absence of a treasurer. She told the commissioners at the time that the contract treasurer, Kathy Allard, was phasing out and that she, herself, was going to have to be less involved as she devotes time to her responsibilities in the Elections office. She said the fact was that two individuals had already assumed the extra responsibilities and should be compensated for the work.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht pointed to a few contradictory statutes. One simply says that the officer, in this case the Treasurer, can appoint the number of deputies determined to be necessary for the functioning of the office. But the very next statute states that the board of county commissioners may fix the number of deputies. Recht said that the Attorney General and the courts have been wrestling with this for a long time.
“The upshot is to try and provide some general outline of responsibilities and duties,” said Recht. He said the county commissioners have the authority and responsibility generally to make sure the treasurer’s office operates appropriately and fulfills the obligations to the taxpayers.
“Included with this is the authority to appoint deputies or approve a Chief Deputy,” said Recht, “But going beyond that to specify specific job duties and functions or to micro-manage an organizational chart in the treasurer’s office is probably beyond the authority of this commission.”
Recht said that the commissioners’ authority was partly derived from statute and partly derived from its budgetary authority. He said looking at issues like deputy and chief deputy certainly involved budgetary issues.
Recht also noted that another statute actually limited the number of deputies in the treasurer’s office according to the size of the county and that Ravalli County was limited to two, except during the months of November and December when the commissioners could appoint deputies beyond the limit set in statute as required to meet the needs of the office.
In sum, Recht said that there was “no bright line” between the authority of the Treasurer and the Board of County Commissioners.
“The best course is to work together in considering any reorganization of the office,” said Recht. He said the Treasurer’s office was an independent office and thought the commissioners can appoint deputies and Chief Deputy positions, “probably not much beyond that into job descriptions and organizational charts.”
Commissioner Suzy Foss asked Recht about the current state of affairs in which they have a treasurer, but one that is not active.
Recht said, “Clearly the commissioners, under the current circumstance, have felt it prudent to exercise additional supervision and oversight of the Treasurer’s office. With that step the commissioners can take input from appointed and hired people but recognize that whatever is done today might have to be revisited.”
Commission Chair Greg Chilcott brought up the option that the commission might create a stipend to pay current employees who would take on additional duties for a temporary period, rather than doing away with the Chief Deputy position and creating two new positions.
Recht said that this would be an option. He outlined all the options facing them starting with whether to do away with the position of Chief Deputy or simply deciding not to fill the vacancy right now. Then there was the option of creating two new positions or a stipend over current wages for defined extra responsibilities and duties.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows said that he was in favor of a stipend and made a motion to do away with the position of Chief Deputy and select two “leads,” one from the tax side and one from the motor vehicle side, to be paid $15 an hour. After some discussion, however, he amended the motion to keeping the position of Chief Deputy but not filling the vacancy and using the vacancy savings to pay for two “leads” in the department who would be paid the difference between their current pay and $14.50 per hour for taking on extra duties for a temporary period.
Recht said that there was no need to advertise anything, even in-house, because no new positions were being created. Certain employees were simply being appointed to receive the stipend for the extra work while they are doing it. He cautioned that the temporary nature of the stipend should be made clear to anyone accepting it.
In the public comment portion of the meeting, Treasurer Valerie Stamey made her first appearance before the commissioners since the meeting in February where she was called to respond to questions about the default judgment against her in a South Carolina court for cashing the same check twice. At that meeting, instead of explaining her situation, she made a list of accusations against some commissioners, other county employees, and the press which are the subject of some ongoing investigations. This was followed by the commissioners placing her on administrative leave with pay until the audit of her office and the investigation by retired Judge Nels Swandal are completed.
Stamey told the commissioners that she did not believe their placement of her on administrative leave was legal. She also told them that, even though on leave, she was still the County Treasurer and as such had a right to participate in any discussion about reorganization of the office.
“This organizational change has been discussed all the way back to when I first took office,” she said. “It is not a new concept. It is not something I had not already discussed with Robert (Jenni, Human Resource Director) and brought to the attention of several of you. It’s not something that Regina (Plettenberg, Clerk and Recorder) just hatched up.”
Stamey said that every single employee in the office claimed to be a “deputy” and that this problem had to be cleared up. She also stated that having Plettenberg run the Treasurer’s office placed her in a position of violating “state decreed checks and balances” between the two offices.
Stamey insisted that as Treasurer she had a right to participate in the staffing recommendation.
In subsequent discussion it was recognized that the current job descriptions for the employees did use the term “deputy.” It was agreed that this was something that might need to be addressed.
Plettenberg said that she was just looking to recognize “what is already going on, on the ground right now.”
It was noted for the record that the Human Resources Director was in support of the stipends.
The board approved using vacancy funds from not hiring a Chief Deputy to pay a stipend to two employees who would take on extra duties on a temporary basis.
Asked how long the Treasurer might remain on paid administrative leave, Commission Chairman Greg Chilcott said they had no idea. He said they were waiting on reports from the auditor, Swandal’s investigation and possibly the FBI.