CHARLES TOWN – The Jefferson County Commission and Circuit Clerk Laura Storm clashed again last week over who has the authority to set the salaries of hires made by constitutional officers.
[cleeng_content id="133100807" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Storm appeared before the commission on Oct. 3 to request the approval to hire two deputy clerks, with annual salaries of $30,000, to fill two vacant positions. She said the salaries for the two positions are already in her budget, and that she will not require additional funding to pay the individuals.
The commission approved hiring the deputies, but ruled that Storm would have to present resumés detailing the justifications for starting salaries in excess of those recommended by the commission’s salary schedule, which bases pay on relevant experience, time employed and other factors.
Storm refused to grant the commission access to the candidates’ resumes, arguing that constitutional officers have the authority to set the salaries of their subordinates, and that the commission only has the power to rule on whether an individual will be hired or not.
She asked the commission again this week to either approve the new hires at the salary she has chosen or to rule against the hiring.
The commissioners declined to change their previous position.
“My position has not changed from the last time you made the request,” said Commissioner Patsy Noland.
Commissioner Walt Pellish said he would not support $30,000 salaries “until we get in some documentation to justify bringing them in at a higher rate.”
Storm pointed out that one of the two hires would be moving from the County Clerk’s office.
“Commissioners, I want to make you aware: [the individual] comes to me from the county clerk’s office, as an employee over there already approved at this salary.”
“You are making my case for me,” replied Pellish. “Our function is to make sure that everything is administered on an equitable basis.”
Pellish repeated his worry that allowing elected officials to deviate from county guidelines could lead to bidding up the salaries of county employees.
“What you have just told me is what any department could do: they could go on a raiding party of other departments and say, ‘Hey, if you come with me I’m going to pay you some more money,’” he said. “That’s not the way you run a compensation program.”
Storm pointed out that the individual coming from the County Clerk’s office would be taking a $3,000 pay cut.
Pellish said that would raise “other questions.”
Storm reiterated her refusal to turn resumés over to the commission.
“I have already told you I will not be turning over resumés,” she said. “I need a yes or no, and I have the right to ask that from you.”
Pellish said the two sides were “at a standstill.”
“We’ve said we would authorize the hiring within the procedure as established by our [human resources] practices and not go outside that,” he said.
Storm said her position would not be altered either.
“I am not releasing this information to you,” she said. “I have given you my response. It will not change. I will not be strong-armed into this. My position will not change.”
Storm asked to be given a clear answer as to whether she was authorized to move forward with the hirings.
“The short answer is that you’re getting a ‘yes’ to the hire and a ‘no’ to the salaries,” Pellish said.
Circuit court ruled on salary authority question in 2007
The question of who has the authority to set the salaries of elected officials’ deputies became the subject of a 2007 lawsuit filed by then-Berkeley County Assessor Preston Gooden against the Berkeley County Commission.
The commission argued that it ought to control his deputies’ salaries in order to ensure pay equity throughout county government and to prevent corruption or capriciousness in the setting of salaries.
“Berkeley County developed an employee classification system many years ago,” the commission argued. “The constitutional officers have generally been supportive of the system.”
The commission warned that allowing Gooden to deviate from county guidelines would cause a “return to the good ol’ days” when elected officials, in their judgement, set salaries that were not justified.
Gooden argued, on the other hand, that state law gave him clear control over the salaries of his subordinates.
Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes sided with Gooden. “By establishing the individual salaries of employees of the Berkeley County Assessor’s Office the Berkeley County Commission has exceeded its budgetary authority and has violated W.Va. Code.”
“The assessor has a clear legal right to set the individual salaries/compensation of his employees,” Wilkes wrote, adding that “a constitutionally created office independent of the commission” would be “damaged” if such authority were given over to the commission.[/cleeng_content]