Discussion about the legal process used to temporarily replace a county judge and whether court members should be compensated for extra work drew bitter and divisive comments during the Grant County Court’s June 26 meeting.
At one point, Judge Scott Myers warned Judy Kerr, who initially raised the first issue with a letter to the court, that she could be evicted from the meeting and not allowed to return without an invitation.
Both issues arose after Myers was unable to attend county court meetings in March and April because of serious health problems, hospitalization and surgery that coincided with countywide flood impacts. He also missed several budget committee meetings.
Pro tem judge
State statute currently calls for the governor’s office to appoint a temporary or pro tem county judge if the elected judge is incapacitated or unable to perform the judge’s duties due to illness or injury, as shown by an affidavit from one or more licensed medical doctors.
The pro tem judge would serve until the elected judge was able to return to work or the term of office expired. Both the elected judge and the pro tem judge would receive regular compensation during that time.
Kerr told the county court June 26 that the court lost leadership during the flood emergency, and she called for a county ordinance establishing a procedure for filling a judge’s seat during an emergency that would rely on a local decision.
Kerr said the state statutes were vague and difficult to follow during an emergency. She acknowledged that Myers had experienced similar situations in the past as a county commissioner, but “two wrongs do not make a right.”
Kerr said no law prevents the county from establishing such an ordinance. She said she wanted to keep this decision in the hands of the local county court and not a governor who was “hunting down Republicans,” as Gov. Kate Brown had ordered Oregon State Police to bring back senators who left the state during the legislative session.
Billy Jo George backed up Kerr by noting that the people’s concern is who the governor may choose to put in Myers’ place.
Frances Preston said, if the state statute remains the established procedure, then she wanted a document filed in the county’s Human Resources office stating that the governor’s office should be contacted quickly if a judge becomes incapacitated.
Jim Spell responded to George by saying only a small percentage of county residents have spoken on this issue, and he preferred to continue following state statute. Shannon Adair said she agreed with Spell.
Commissioner Jim Hamsher, who took the lead as the senior commissioner during the flood emergency, announced at the beginning that he was recusing himself from the pro tem and compensation issues.
Commissioner Sam Palmer said under current law two members of the court can appoint a new member to fill an absence, but they cannot appoint a temporary member.
Palmer, who is a registered nurse, noted that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 protects the privacy of patients and makes it difficult for county officials to determine if a judge is incapacitated.
Palmer said Myers did a good job of keeping the court informed, but his concern was not knowing when was the correct time to contact the governor’s office during an emergency.
Citing County Counsel Jim Carpenter’s opinion letter on the matter, Myers said he was not convinced there was a need to create a county ordinance to change the process established in state statute. He recalled seeing county commissioners or judges in other counties become incapacitated or die and how the governor’s office responded immediately.
It was fine for the senior commissioner to take over leadership of certain committees or boards in a judge’s absence, Myers said. He recalled “dozens” of times when the Grant County Court was down to two members and still was able to perform its duties.
Myers noted that his wife and the court’s former administrative assistant, Laurie Wright, kept the court apprised of his health condition. He said he worked on court business while in the hospital using his iPad and worked on court business in his office in the courthouse while recuperating after surgery. Nobody needed to perform the duties of county judge during his absence, he said.
Myers’ motion to continue relying on state statute instead of creating a new county ordinance passed 2-0 with Hamsher recused.
Palmer said he asked that discussion of compensating Hamsher for his extra work during the spring flood to be put on the court agenda. He said the idea originated with his constituents.
Myers opposed the idea of compensating Hamsher or any elected county official for performing extra work on principle. Elected officials understood they may work 10 hours one week and 70 hours another, he said. Compensating one person for extra work was a decision that could impact all county workers, he said, and that was a “rabbit hole” he didn’t want to go down.
Justice of the Peace Kathy Stinnett also spoke against the compensation idea. Many officials work more than 40 hours per week, she said, and volunteers work without pay at all. She noted that the county website committee worked 140 hours.
Elected officials should be the last to ask for compensation for extra work, and any benefit provided for one person must be provided to everyone, Stinnett said. She acknowledged that she didn’t think county commissioners should be paid only one-third of a full-time salary, but that’s just the way it’s done.
The idea of compensating elected officials didn’t seem ethical, and she didn’t like the feel of it, Stinnett said. She noted that, in her position as a justice of the peace, she needed to take extra steps to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Hamsher responded several times to Stinnett’s comments, noting that when she needed help at justice court she came to the county court and requested a part-time clerk. He also noted that she is budgeted for 40 hours per week while he receives 13 1/3 hours per week.
Hamsher noted that, on top of his county commissioner duties, he serves as the mayor and city manager of Prairie City without compensation — not even a free water bill, he added.
Hamsher also said he didn’t like his ethics being questioned and felt insulted by Stinnett’s remarks.
Adair noted that she is an unpaid John Day city councilor and opposed the idea of compensating Hamsher for extra work. She also expressed concern that the county court’s decision could affect city councils around the county.
Discussion on the compensation matter ended without a motion or a vote but may be brought back at another date.