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Berkeley County officials sue County Commission

December 31, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Four elected officials in Berkeley County, including the sheriff and prosecuting attorney, filed a lawsuit Thursday against the County Commission, alleging the Commissioners have "arbitrarily and capriciously" adopted an unfair salary scale, refused to allow an adequate number of employees to be hired and have not dispersed reasonable budgets to certain offices.

The 12-page lawsuit was filed by Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely, Sheriff Randy Smith, Circuit Clerk Virginia Sine and outgoing Assessor Evelyn Fink.

Named were Berkeley County Commissioners Steve Teufel and Howard Strauss and outgoing Commissioner John Wright.

Both Wright and Fink's last official day of duty was Thursday. Wright will be replaced by Commissioner-elect Ron Collins, while Assessor-elect Preston Gooden will take over for Fink.

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Games-Neely, Smith, Sine and Fink all declined to comment. Games-Neely said she did not want to comment because the commissioners had not yet received copies of the lawsuit, which was filed at 2:48 p.m., according to a time stamp on the first page.

The lawsuit asks that a judge order the County Commission to "adequately compensate the employees in the constitutional offices, permit the employment of adequate personnel in each of said constitutional offices to properly address the responsibilities of each office; and in some instances, to adequately fund line items to perform required services. ..."

It asks that the lawsuit be modified later to reflect changes in officeholders.

Wright said he was not surprised to hear of the suit.

"I could feel a lawsuit coming on. I thought it was only a matter of time," said Wright, whose failing health enabled him to attend only two commission meetings in 2004.

Wright said he wishes he had been able to meet with the officials who filed the lawsuit, all of whom he declared to be "mighty fine people," to possibly head off legal action.

"I've always fought for higher salaries," said Wright, who said no county employee should be paid less than $20,000.

Commissioner-elect Collins campaigned on the notion that county employees should receive higher salaries. When reached at home Thursday evening he declined to comment.

Commissioner Teufel declined to comment and Commissioner Strauss did not return phone messages.

Written by Games-Neely, the lawsuit states in part, "The County Commission has arbitrarily and capriciously adopted a pattern and practice of utilizing a salary scale for all employees of the County without regard to the education, training, responsibilities, volume, or complexities of the individual employee's job assignment. Moreover, said compensation is modified, in many instances, without the input of the departmental officials."

The lawsuit contends that the commission "arbitrarily and capriciously" mandated that all new employees be paid an entry-level salary, without adjustments allowed based on experience. "Said mandate inhibits departmental officials from recruiting qualified employees from the surrounding competitive job market," the lawsuit states.

Referring to her office, Games-Neely wrote in the lawsuit that in 2004 she did not receive money she requested in her budget to give her employees raises and to hire more employees. Some employees in the county received raises, but four of her senior assistant prosecutors did not and she was not allowed to hire any new employees, the suit says.

The lawsuit alleges that the sheriff, assessor and circuit clerk also did not receive funding they requested to adequately fulfill the duties of their offices.

Other county offices received money for raises and to hire more personnel, "which exceeded and were grossly disproportionate to those received by the Petitioners' offices," the suit states.

The lawsuit says that elected officials have been required to appear before the commissioners to explain purchases totaling more than $500.

In February the commissioners lambasted Games-Neely during a meeting because she bought several $700 desks for her office without seeking permission. They also were angry that she moved money around within her budget to give some of her senior assistant prosecutors a raise.

The suit contends that the commissioners no longer allow department heads to buy equipment for their offices.

"These actions by the county commission in reducing the budgets of the Petitioners were taken in an attempt to control the salaries of the deputies and assistants who work in those offices, as well as to further improperly micro-manage the budgets of these offices. West Virginia law does not allow this action," the suit alleges.

West Virginia law states that elected officials, not the County Commission, determine what their employees should be paid. "This right has been recognized several times by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia," wrote Games-Neely.

"The budget constraints placed upon the Petitioners by the County Commission are egregious in the face of an expanding population, growth and development, said actions are detrimental to the employees of this county and the citizens that these offices are required to serve," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit asks that a judge award county employees back pay and the benefits they would have received if each of the four elected officials had received the budgets they requested, and also that each of the four offices be adequately funded.

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