Judicial commissioners violate contracts by cashing in on unused vacation time

Judicial commissioners violate contracts by cashing in on unused vacation time

August 9th, 2018 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

The Hamilton County Commission's own records prove windfall payments to judicial commissioners for unused vacation time were made in violation of their contracts.

That includes former Chief Magistrate Randy Russell, who signed contracts each year from 2013 to 2017 which specifically stated judicial commissioners could not cash in on unused leave. But after Russell's contract wasn't renewed this year, he collected around $13,400 for unused vacation in those same years.

He told the Times Free Press on Wednesday that "it was never noted anywhere" and it was "all news to me" that magistrates couldn't collect for unused vacation.

"Every magistrate that's been in the program, their balance has been paid, no questions asked," Russell said. He did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

County finance records show that's true, at least in recent years.

Former magistrate Nathaniel Goggins signed a contract from 2014-17 including the use-it-or-lose it clause for paid time off. But when he left in May 2017, he got a check for $9,374.41.

Sharetta Smith, who served from 2013-16 and signed contracts each year, collected $5,720.92 for unused vacation when she left. Brandy Spurgin-Floyd collected $2,917.67. Her contract wasn't attached to the commission resolution naming her a magistrate in 2017.

The whole issue of the wrongful payouts to ex-magistrates blew up in the County Commission on Wednesday. Commissioner Tim Boyd said new chief magistrate Lorrie Miller had discovered the discrepancies and that he had been trying since mid-July to learn more from County Attorney Rheubin Taylor.

On Thursday, Boyd followed up with a letter to County Mayor Jim Coppinger asking how the payouts were calculated, who approved them, and for copies of the magistrates' contracts from before and after the 2013 policy change.

Most of those answers are contained in the commission's own records.

According to minutes and resolutions on the county website, the whole thing started in late 2012 when then-Chief Magistrate Larry Ables asked commissioners to reimburse him at the chief magistrate rate for 787 hours' unused vacation time.

The commission — which included present members Chester Bankston, Greg Beck, Boyd, Jim Fields, Joe Graham and Warren Mackey — turned him down.

Over the next few months, commissioners voted to have magistrates use the same punch-card timekeeping system as other county employees, and they set limits on how much vacation time county employees could accumulate.

On March 28, 2013, commissioners reappointed Russell and Smith to magistrate positions. And for the first time, the contracts they signed specifically limited magistrates' paid leave time to 10 days, use or lose, with no accrual permitted.

Though the contract has been amended over the years — including a big pay increase this year — the leave provision hasn't changed.

When Boyd raised the issue Wednesday, he showed other commissioners a memo from the county finance department detailing the improper payments and more than 475 hours in accumulated leave earned by two other serving magistrates, Ron Powers and Andrew Basler.

He wanted to know why the commissioners didn't know about the payouts to people in a program founded and run by the commission, and whether the commission should try to get the money back.

Chairman Randy Fairbanks and Vice Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley said they had been briefed by Coppinger's staff and didn't think the magistrates should be asked to return the money.

Other commissioners felt differently, and decided they will vote Wednesday whether to try to recover the improper payments.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.