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 Council Disapproves of Town Court Arrangement

August 6, 2008 - While the town's nepotism policy doesn't prohibit the town court judge from appointing his daughter as the court's clerk, the Knightstown Town Council recently expressed disapproval with the arrangement.

The council voted 4-1 at its July 17 meeting in support of motion encouraging town employees not covered by a nepotism policy passed in January to voluntarily adhere to it. The policy prohibits town employees from being directly supervised by a relative.

Although not named specifically in the motion, discussion leading up to this action made clear that it was prompted by Town Court Judge Hayden Butler's decision to appoint his daughter, Lisa Cox, as the court's clerk. Cox, a deputy clerk hired in 2006 and named interim court clerk in late May, replaces Earlene Carter, whose retirement took effect July 1.

After the council voted to accept Carter's notice of retirement, Council President Valerie Trump announced that Butler had sent the council a letter requesting that Cox be made court clerk immediately. Council members Terry Guerin and Steve Nelson, who both serve on the council's court committee, both said Butler had not notified them that he was going to be submitting the request.

"I would point out that there is a court committee," Guerin said, "and it would have been advantageous if the judge had at least called myself or Steve and told us that he was going to submit this letter. … I just don't think process was followed and I would like to have that on record."

Guerin said the town had discussed the town's nepotism policy with the judge before. However, he said the town's prior attorney, David Copenhaver, had advised the council that state statute gives Butler authority, as the town court judge, to appoint a court clerk. While the council sets the pay for the clerk's position, the council believes it has no say over who Butler selects for the position.

"We told him, that being the case, hiring his daughter fell outside the scope of the town's nepotism policy," Guerin said. "But, the fact remained, it still was a father-daughter relationship, and that, in the final analysis, it would be something between him and the voters."

Guerin said he thought it was important for the council "to go on record as saying this hiring is outside the nepotism policy of the town." Trump agreed.

"We need to recognize the fact that she is … an employee of the town and she is being supervised by an immediate family member," Trump said. "Personally, it is his hiring decision; that does not mean that we have to condone it."

Guerin made a motion that the council go on record acknowledging the town's nepotism policy and encouraging those who are legally outside the scope of the policy, but accountable to the town, to adhere to its terms. Council Vice President Clyde South seconded the motion.

"My personal opinion is I think we went too far there, Terry," Nelson said before the vote. "I think the fact that we recognized that it happened, or is happening, and that we disagree with it, that would be sufficient." Nelson cast the lone dissenting vote.

Butler's letter to the council had also requested that part-time deputy clerk Terry Forshey be moved into the full-time deputy clerk position Cox formerly held. While the council discussed the request, no action was taken.

"On the second issue ... we have a budget we expect to be adhered to," Guerin said. “If he feels that he has the funds to fund that position then I think, again, as far as I'm concerned, it's his call."

Trump referred the council to a copy of financial report provided by the town's clerk-treasurer, Judy Haines. She noted that the town court, as of the end of June, only had 28 percent of its 2008 budgeted funds remaining for the town's full-time and part-time deputy clerks.

"I think we need to remind (Butler) of what his budget level is and that if he moves (Forshey) to full-time, he needs to be prepared to come up with some courses of action to make sure he stays within his budget," Guerin said. Trump and Nelson both said they agreed.

Trump also noted that the monthly financial report showed that budgeted funds for the court's bailiff's salary are also running out ahead of schedule. According to the report, only 22 percent of the funds appropriated for the bailiff's 2008 pay were left as of the end of June.

Guerin asked the town's new legal counsel, attorney Gregg Morelock, if the council would have the authority to close the court if it runs over budget, or limit its days and hours of operation. Morelock said those were issues he would need to research.

Butler did not attend the council's July 17 meeting, which was on a Thursday, when court was in session. He did speak to The Banner Tuesday morning, however, about naming his daughter the court clerk.

According to Butler, Cox, who had been a deputy clerk, was the only other court employee who knew how to do Carter's job, including the preparation of various reports the court is required to file on a regular basis. When Carter was on medical leave prior to her retirement, he said Cox had filled in for her.

"We had one person who was capable of handling it," Butler said. "We didn't really have anybody we could put in there who could do all our reports … She was the only one really who knew how to do it. You've got to make do with what you've got."

As for budgetary issues, Butler said he's doing what he can to keep costs down. "We're not working any overtime now," he said. "We've got all that eliminated. I don't know what else to do. We're doing everything we possibly can."

 

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