Sohn: What's a $31,500 'paperwork slip-up' worth?

Sohn: What's a $31,500 'paperwork slip-up' worth?

August 10th, 2018 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

The Hamilton County Commission listens to a presentation last year.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

Just in case you've been on the fence about whether our Hamilton County government is well-oiled machine or a clunker, Thursday's Chattanooga Times Free Press story about paying a fired magistrate $13,400 for unused vacation time should make you leap off that fence and want to throw it at somebody.

This wasn't, by the way, just a one-off, $13,000 goof. It was, in fact, a systemic, bad-government throwaway of nearly $31,500 in taxpayer money in just one program and involving just four employees.

County officials chalk the problem up to a policy change and missing paperwork. Adding insult to injury, some commissioners are equivocating about whether the county should seek repayment of money mistakenly paid to the former jail magistrates, or just write it off. They will vote on it next Wednesday.

Commissioner Tim Boyd made the issue public this week, demanding to know why former chief magistrate Randy Russell received a payout of more than $26,000 when commissioners failed to renew his contract in May. The payout included almost $13,400 for unused vacation time that Russell shouldn't have received after a 2013 contract change that allotted magistrates 10 days of use-or-lose yearly vacation.

As it turns out, three other former magistrates also have been paid for unused leave, and two now serving have accumulated time off totaling more than 475 hours.

At a Security and Corrections Committee meeting this week, Boyd rightly sought an explanation from County Attorney Rheubin Taylor. Who authorized the payout, when and why? Boyd demanded. Boyd also complained that he had emailed Taylor on July 19 and July 24 seeking contracts for Russell and current magistrate Stuart Brown, without getting a response until he took the problem to Chairman Randy Fairbanks.

Taylor passed the buck. "We draw up the contracts, finance handles the money," he said, adding that Boyd should have called him, since he doesn't usually read emails.

Say what? We pay this county attorney to do the county's business and he doesn't read his county email? Might we ask for still more reimbursement?

But we digress. Back to the magistrates, and the fiery county meeting over them.

It also turns out that commissioners Randy Fairbanks and Sabrena Smedley — the commission's chairman and vice chairman, respectively — knew about the incorrect pay and had told county finance officials they didn't support seeking repayment.

"I told them no, we basically fired these individuals," Fairbanks said during the meeting. "I don't want to go back and tell them we made a mistake and ask them for the money back."

Smedley said she told the finance staff, "I didn't think it was worth going after the money" paid in error.

Say what? Let's see. What would $31,500 pay for? But it "wasn't worth" going after?

Commissioner Greg Beck was equally outraged: "I bought a $35 shelf at a thrift store with discretionary money and [the finance department] is raising hell with me saying I have to turn it in because it belongs to the county," said Beck, who leaves office at the end of the month. "That's the way it is, if you owe the county something, you give the county theirs back," he said.

Commissioner Joe Graham also seemed disgusted, saying Fairbanks and Smedley didn't have authority to make that decision: "It takes five votes. It needs to be voted on," he said.

After the meeting, County Mayor Jim Coppinger, with Taylor and the heads of finance and human resources on speakerphone, told Times Free Press reporter Judy Walton that the problem was a paperwork slip-up in the magistrate program.

The program, created years ago to ease jail overcrowding by having magistrates there on nights and weekends to sign warrants and set bail, is the only program the commission runs. But in 2013 the commission voted to change magistrate leave to a use-or-lose policy. Coppinger says, however, that somehow the change form signed by the commission chairman didn't find its way to the human resources office, so the stricter policy never took effect.

Coppinger said that duty should have fallen to the chief magistrate, who works for the commission and administers the program. At the time, that was Randy Russell — the same guy that all this ruckus is about.

Russell said Wednesday he was surprised by the whole thing. But he shouldn't have been.

He's an attorney, and the new 2013 contract that he and the other overpaid former magistrates signed upon appointment or reappointment to their jobs specified the use-it-or-lose-it leave time.

Think about it. This is just one little program, and four employees and a $31,500 "paperwork slip-up."

The county has hundreds of employees and contracts. And who knows how many emails to read.

"This is another example of how county government is complacent in doing its job, with no communication with the commission," Boyd raged during the Security and Corrections Committee meeting.

We're raging with him.

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