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Berkeley assessor is suing county officials

September 26, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Berkeley County Assessor Preston B. Gooden has filed a lawsuit against the Berkeley County Commission, claiming the commission exceeded its constitutional powers when determining how salaries are set for county employees.

The 15-page civil suit names as defendants the County Commission, commissioners Steven C. Teufel, William L. "Bill" Stubblefield and Ronald K. Collins, County Clerk John W. Small Jr. and Sheriff W. Randy Smith.

Filed Thursday by attorney Richard G. Gay, Gooden's petition asks the court to order the county commission to "be prohibited from engaging in the illegal and unconstitutional practice of setting the individual compensation of assistants, deputies and employees of the Assessor in the future..."

Gooden also wants the court to order the commission to retroactively compensate employees Deborah Murphy, Renee Pennington and Sharon Rankin with the respective salary amounts that he proposed for them for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, according to the lawsuit.

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"The assessor noted that the commission's proposed raises for these three failed to take into proper consideration their respective duties, responsibilities, experience and assigned work for the Assessor's office," Gay said in his complaint.

Gooden wants Murphy to be paid $29,593 instead of $28,593, Pennington to be paid $31,882 instead of $33,882 and Rankin to be paid $28,234 instead of $27,234, according to the complaint.

The County Commission in March allocated $482,983 to Gooden's office for salaries and wages for the current fiscal year and specified the amount of pay for each of Gooden's staff.

The civil action was assigned to 23rd Judicial Circuit judge Christopher C. Wilkes, according to Circuit Clerk Virginia Sine's office.

Describing Gooden's legal action as "dangerous," Norwood Bentley III, the county's director of legal services, said Tuesday that the county's merit-based system on track for the 2008-09 fiscal year includes flexibility for Gooden and other elected officers to determine increases for their staff.

"If he wanted to wait a few months as we told him ... he'll have some room to make some distinction in his staff salaries based on merit," Bentley said.

The county could revert back to the "old days" of allotting money to each elected county officer and allow them to set the individual compensation rates, but Bentley predicted almost immediate legal troubles.

"We will be back in court faster than you can snap your fingers," Bentley said. "The next lawsuit we get is going to be his fault. ... He'll have to live with that."

In addition to the salary adjustments, Gooden requested the court award him costs and attorney's fees and "for such further relief as the Court deems meet and just."

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