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The Lake News Online
  • Tensions escalate at Morgan County Courthouse

  • Further issues appear to be entangling the Morgan County Commission's decision to appeal the circuit court ruling in favor of Morgan County Treasurer Louella Pryor in a lawsuit over $93,600 in back pay.
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  • Further issues appear to be entangling the Morgan County Commission's decision to appeal the circuit court ruling in favor of Morgan County Treasurer Louella Pryor in a lawsuit over $93,600 in back pay.
    In a two to one vote, the county commission voted during a crowded meeting on Oct. 17 to file an appeal.
    Eastern District Commissioner Rodney Schad voted against the motion to file an appeal, but Presiding Commissioner James Vaughan and Western District Commissioner Wayne Kroeschen voted for it.
    Vaughan has said that the commission believes the judge's interpretation of statutes was not correct and that they can ultimately save money by appealing.
    Schad says he voted against the appeal after consulting a couple of attorneys who indicated that the appeal was unlikely to be successful.
    St. Louis attorney Ivan Schraeder has represented the county commission in the case but was not present at the Oct. 17 county commission meeting.
    According to Schad, the commission has consulted Schraeder about the appeal in a conference call a couple of weeks ago. Schraeder's counsel gave the commissioners options but did not advise them on whether to appeal or not, Schad said.
    Vaughan says he too has received legal advice from another attorney and that counsel indicated the commission has a case for appeal.
    On Thursday, Vaughan refused to release the name of the attorney he consulted independently and said that the commission was keeping its options open on who would represent them in the appeal. On Monday, however, he said local attorney Michael McDorman would be representing the county in the case.
    When asked why the county decided to switch attorneys, Vaughan said it was just because they wanted a different attorney.
    In a further conflict related to the matter, the county commission may have a contract issue over Schraeder representing the county in the lawsuit.
    Originally approved in 2008, a copy of the Missouri Association of Counties prepaid legal services agreement - through which Morgan County contracts Schraeder's legal counsel - states that "no action in disputes between the County Commission and other individually elected county officials" and "no actions related to salary issues of county elected officials" are covered by the agreement in order to avoid a possible conflict of interest.
    Vaughan said he was not aware of any issue over their contract with Schraeder.
    Pryor was upset by the commission's decision to appeal.
    The issue has become personal, she says.
    "It's now discrimination as far as I'm concerned," Pryor says. "They're treating me differently than the other offices are treated. I feel it is a personal vendetta because I stood up for myself and they thought I should just have let it go. They said they wanted a judge's decision. Now, they've had the judge rule and I've tried to settle with them three times, but they're still too stubborn and they want to hurt me politically."
    Page 2 of 4 - Since filing the lawsuit in April 2012, Pryor also says she has been suffering in a hostile work environment, including Vaughan yelling at her and retaliation by a courthouse employee, calling her stupid and trying to deny her access to office cleaning supplies.
    Commissioners, she says, have refused to address the issue.
    Vaughan refused to comment on her claims regarding the a hostile workplace.
    People spilled out of the commissioner's office into their secretary's office and out into the hallway during the meeting as several people attended in support of Pryor.
    While the county citizens attended the meeting regarding the appeal, they were only allowed to speak after the commissioners had already voted on the appeal.
    They went ahead and said their pieces anyway, said Judy Dunnaway.
    The meeting was a mess from there, she said.
    Vaughan raised his voice at the crowd and picked up the phone and threatened to call the police when he didn't like what someone had to say, according to Dunnaway.
    According to Schad, emotions did run high during the meeting, but as far as he was aware, everyone who wanted to speak was allowed to do so.
    Vaughan refused to comment on anything regarding the meeting and his behavior. He also said he could not comment on anything tied to the lawsuit.
    Retired Howard County Judge Ralph Jaynes granted Pryor's motion for summary judgement on Oct. 2.
    From 2003-2010, Pryor received a salary of $33,300 per year. According to the ruling, her salary should have been $45,000 a year.
    The judgement awarded Pryor the difference in pay for those years - $93,600 - with interest. Pryor was to be allowed to make contributions to her retirement plan retrospectively for those years based on the salary of $45,000, and the county commission was ordered to make contributions to Pryor's retirement plan in an amount equal to the amount that would have been paid for those years based on the $45,000 salary.
    Serving on the Morgan County Salary Commission, Pryor herself voted for that salary though she has said that she has questioned the legality of the salary over the years. She was unsure in the matter, however, until attending an October 2011 Missouri Association of Counties meeting where she heard an attorney speak on elected officials' salaries and came to believe the $33,300 salary was not right.
    Pryor attempted to negotiate a lesser settlement prior to filing the lawsuit, but the county commission refused to settle.
    Pryor subsequently filed suit, and Judge Jaynes was appointed to take the case after two Morgan County judges recused themselves.
    Jaynes ruled that Pryor was owed 100 percent of the state-mandated maximum salary for all eight years because of a 1997 vote by salary commission to set all officials' salaries at the full rate. The $33,300 was only 74 percent of state-mandated maximum, according to the ruling, though the decision to set salaries at 100 percent was never altered by subsequent salary commissions.
    Page 3 of 4 - In 2001, the assessed valuation of Morgan County increased from approximately $266 million to $306 million. Crossing the $300 million assessed valuation threshold put Morgan County into a different statutory category for salaries.
    At that time, all elected officials except for the treasurer received a salary increase to 100 percent of the maximum statutory amount effective Jan. 1, 2002, according to the court findings, which meant a mid-term salary increase for some.
    No vote of the salary commission was ever made to effect those increases, and there was neither a motion nor a vote to provide for a lower percentage for the treasurer, the judgement stated.
    When Pryor took office in 2003, RSMo Section 54.261 Subsection 2 and 3 did authorize the salary commission to set the treasurer's salary at $33,300 or up to $45,000 but no measure was ever taken to set the salary at less than 100 percent of the maximum, the ruling stated.
    Then in 2003 during Pryor's first term, the Missouri General Assembly repealed Subsection 2 of Section 54.261 to set the salary for treasurers - of county's with assessed valuation of $300 million or more - at $45,000. The change removed even the option of setting the salary at $33,300, according to the ruling. If there was any doubt about what the salary should be, it was made plain that it had to be $45,000 on the effective date of the legislation on Aug. 28, 2003, the court judgement stated.
    At the November 2005 meeting of the salary commission, a list distributed by then-prosecuting attorney Marvin Opie gave the treasurer's "base" salary as $33,300 - 74 percent of $45,000 - while all the other elected officials received 100 percent of their salaries ranging from $16,000 for the coroner to $50,000 for the sheriff.
    If the term "base salary" had been used consistently for all offices, the treasurer's "base salary" would have been reported as $45,000, according to the court judgement.
    According to Pryor, Western District Commissioner Warren Anderson told her prior to the meeting that she was not worth it and that if her salary went to 100 percent then the commissioners' salary would have to be raised to 126 percent.
    It was the first meeting where Pryor would vote on her own salary.
    Believing that the commission had received legal advice on the issue, she voted went ahead and voted yes on the $33,300 salary after a motion by then-County Collector Bob Raines to put everyone's salary at 100 percent was ignored by Anderson.
    As a third class county, the Morgan County Salary Commission had no authority to establish a salary for the treasurer at $33,300, the judgement stated. The only way the salary commission could have set the treasurer's salary at 74 percent of the maximum only was with a two-thirds vote to set all elected officials' salaries at 74 percent. All officers must receive the same percentage increase or decrease, according to RSMo 50.333.6.
    Page 4 of 4 - By never voting to set the salary at 74 percent, the treasurer's salary was also not stated as a percentage of the maximum allowable compensation, making the salary commission's action unlawful and void, also outlined by RSMo 50.333.6, the ruling stated.
    In a statement following the court's decision, Vaughan argued, "In 2003 the language of one of the state statutes that governs the Salary Commission stated that her salary MAY increase to $45,000.00. Again, there was no motion made to that affect. In 2007, the language changed to SHALL increase to $45,000. Still with no motion made during the Salary Commission meeting, Mrs. Pryor was given the increase at the beginning of her new term in 2011."
    According to Vaughan, the county commission acted under the advisement of their attorney who assured them that, due to the statute of limitations, Pryor would not be able to collect more than four years of back, if even that.
    The judgement also ruled that the five year statute of limitations did not apply in this case because Missouri courts have consistently ruled that a cause of unpaid compensation does not accrue until the last date on which services are performed or when employment is terminated.
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