Report: Magistrate problems bigger than vacation payouts

Report: Magistrate problems bigger than vacation payouts

August 17th, 2018 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

In this June 2016 staff file photo, Chief Magistrate Randy Russell pulls a file from the back of the door in his narrow office at the Hamilton County Jail.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Based on a report from their new chief magistrate that describes a program limping along in disarray, Hamilton County commissioners say they've got a repair job ahead.

Several commissioners this week said Chief Magistrate Lorri Miller's 20-page report, dated Aug. 11, alerted them to problems in the judicial commissioner program never mentioned by her predecessor, who held the position for five years.

It includes her take on revelations that former chief magistrate Randy Russell and three ex-magistrates walked away with more than $30,000 for unused vacation time to which they weren't entitled.

It also describes what she's done to fix chaotic scheduling and "terrible circumstances" for judicial commissioners she said Russell never addressed. And it says the other magistrate hired in late May along with her, despite additional training, still isn't competent to do the job.

Commission Chairman Randy Fairbanks said Friday he's grateful to Miller for the report, even though a lot of the news isn't good.

"She's working hard and trying to do a good job and get it straightened out. It's more complicated than it seemed to any of us commissioners," Fairbanks said.

Vice Chairman Sabrena Smedley said commissioners were supposed to receive regular reports on the program but had not in recent years under Russell.

"I'm pleased at the level she dove in, and everything she informed us of," Smedley said. "I don't think I understood what all this magistrate program entails and how complex it truly is."

Commissioner Tim Boyd, the Security and Corrections Committee chairman who brought to light and demanded answers about the magistrates' vacation payouts, didn't respond to a request for comment Friday but said he is writing his own report to commission leadership.

Commissioner Greg Martin said he believes the program was mismanaged in the past but he has confidence in Miller, whom he supported for chief magistrate.

"What concerns me is we didn't know any of this," Martin said. "Not just why didn't we know this from Randy Russell, why didn't we know this from others? I think that we have a serious problem that goes back to our previous chief magistrate, and we have a journey to fix it."

Commissioner Warren Mackey, chairman of the health/human services/personnel committee, was out of town Friday. Commissioner Chester Bankston also couldn't be reached for comment. Three other commissioners – Greg Beck, Jim Fields and Joe Graham — are leaving the panel.

The four judicial commissioners work nights and weekends in the Hamilton County Jail, setting bonds and signing search and arrest warrants. A private legislative act and public referendum in 1996 authorized the program, giving the county commission responsibility for appointing magistrates and setting their pay and terms of office.

"We've got these employees/contractors, whatever you want to call them, that we're supposed to be administering the program. I don't think we fully understood that," Fairbanks said.

"We've got to decide how it's going to be administered and how we oversee it, or go back to the Legislature and see if it can be changed or amended," he said, though any talk of changing the private act is premature now.

Careful what you ask for

Earlier this year, commissioners boosted magistrates' pay to $80,000 a year and $92,000 over four years, plus a $9,200 bump for the chief magistrate. They also extended magistrates' terms from one year to two.

The pay raise was something Russell had lobbied for, but it cost him his position when commissioners opened up applications and hired Miller and Stuart Brown.

According to Miller's report, she discovered the vacation payouts in June while scheduling a fill-in magistrate for one who was out.

Since 2013, magistrates signed annual contracts giving them 10 days' use-or-lose vacation.

But Russell got a check for almost $13,400 and the other departing magistrate, Brandy Spurgin-Floyd, got nearly $3,000 for unused vacation. Spurgin-Floyd has made arrangements to repay the sum.

Ex-magistrates Nathaniel Goggins and Sharetta Smith received $9,374 and $5,721, respectively, when they left in 2017 and 2016.

Miller said bluntly in her report that Russell was responsible for the payroll discrepancy.

"He was the one who entered the payroll each and every pay period and could clearly see the PTO listed and increasing each pay period. He knew how it worked. EVERY HAMILTON COUNTY EMPLOYEE I have had interactions with has been professional, diligent and dedicated. I hope the commission recognizes this," she wrote.

Miller also wrote Russell "acted very evasive when I questioned him about the payroll questions I had."

Russell disputed that, saying Miller had never discussed magistrates' paid time off with him.

"I adamantly deny Ms. Miller's assertion that I deliberately manipulated any work schedule so as to enable the buildup of PTO for any magistrate. The payroll records are in the county's possession; they will show I routinely subtracted PTO from any magistrate's records." Russell said Friday.

"With regard to Ms. Miller's report, there are legal questions and issues that need to be looked into, and should this controversy go into litigation, I have no comment regarding [those issues]."

Miller said calendars and payroll records for the last year showed the magistrates "worked tirelessly under terrible circumstances" and "never really got to take any actual time off" because they had to juggle schedules to cover the shifts.

"In my opinion, it is terrible to penalize those magistrates who never really had a system in place that would allow them to use their vacation time because of a shortage of manpower and resources," she wrote.

She has proposed a new schedule she said will be more effective while giving magistrates more dependable hours. But she also included correspondence indicating commissioners may need to hire a new magistrate soon.

Commissioners appointed Stuart Brown at the same time as Miller, but she told them in July he wasn't able to do the job. Commissioners voted to give him a month for additional training — ironically, provided by Spurgin-Floyd, whom he was hired to replace.

Citing Spurgin-Floyd's notes and her own evaluation, Miller wrote that despite more than 100 added hours of training, "your performance in this position still falls well short of what I consider competent."

Miller details problems ranging from multiple serious defects in warrants and misplaced paperwork to an inability to keep up with the workload and "a lack of understanding of some basic legal principles."

"Regrettably, at this time, I maintain my belief that you are ill-equipped to competently perform the duties required in this position," she wrote.

Fairbanks said Friday that Brown's fate likely will be decided after the three new commissioners — Chip Baker in District 2, Katherlyn Geter in District 5, and David Sharpe in District 6 – are sworn in next month.

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