During the regularly scheduled commission meeting on June 1, Commissioner Carla Arthaud raised concern with what she said were unauthorized longevity payments made to Stark County commissioners in 2019 and 2020. According to Arthaud, the payments were made without commission approval and behind closed doors.
Arthaud's claims were verified through public records and confirm that some of the commissioners had received longevity payments, totaling $21,444.75, which are intended to serve as a recruitment and retention program for the county and given on the basis of length of employment.
What wasn't answered in the meeting, and is currently under legal review by the State's Attorney's Office, is whether or not commissioners are employees of Stark County? A question that will determine whether or not commissioners were entitled to the longevity payments.
The Oxford Dictionary defines an employee as "a person employed for wages or salary, especially at nonexecutive level," while the legal definition according to Nolo's Plain-English Law Dictionary is "a person who is hired to work for another person or business (the employer) for compensation and is subject to the employer's direction as to the details of how to perform the job. Employees are subject to payroll tax code rules."
Commissioner Ken Zander and his wife Chris invited The Press to their home to highlight some of the issues with an interpretation that commissioners are not employees and directly responded to questions pertaining to the allegations of "back door" deals.
"If we're not employees, then what are we? Contractors, volunteers?" Zander asked, pointing to the Stark County Employee Policy manual on his dining room table issued to employees of the county. "Why were we given these to adhere to if we aren't employees? Why did we just go through an extensive series of investigations for employee misconduct if we aren't employees?"
Zander then proceeded to provide The Press with payroll direct deposit receipts, all of which highlight the many deductions taken for employee benefits from his paycheck each bi-monthly cycle — including retirement, health and other line items.
"We receive benefits as employees of the county, and we pay into those benefits through deductions," he explained. "So why would we on one hand be considered employees for this issue or that issue, while on the other hand not be considered employees for this issue or any other issue."
Zander added, "You can't have it both ways. You can't say 'I'm an employee entitled to this' and then turn around and say that commissioners aren't employees."
Ken and Chris Zander took personal offense to Arthaud's publicly insinuated notion that the money was a back door deal amongst a group of current and former commissioners.
Explaining how he never broached the subject and was instead approached by an employee within the auditor's office, Zander explained that he was told that the auditor's office had discovered through audits that commissioners had not been receiving a benefit that was given to all employees and that he was therefore subject to back pay stretching back to his first year on the commission.
"She walked up and said, 'Hey Ken' I need you to look at this. I said, 'Ok.' She then explained that I would receive the owed money and I continued with my business at the courthouse," Zander said. "At no point did a group of commissioners get together and pay ourselves this money, so what Arthaud claims was a back door deal is simply not true at all."
Zander added, "Her remark suggests county commissioners had an illegal meeting to discuss and approve longevity. Speaking for myself, this did not happen."
While the legal interpretation of the position of commissioners as employees remains under review, Zander explained why in his opinion the matter did not need commission approval to be paid out.
"If an employee is entitled to a benefit and they aren't receiving that benefit, we don't have to have a meeting and vote to give them something that they are already entitled to. If an employee was being overcharged for a health benefit, we wouldn't have to vote to repay them for the overcharge," he said. "So why is this any different? Commissioners had not been receiving a benefit they were entitled to, and the county back paid them their outstanding balance."
Zander said he was looking forward to hearing the opinion of the State's Attorney and would support any finding reached on the matter, but noted that previous commissioners who left the county to work for the State of North Dakota were considered employees of the county by the state entities.
"If the state says we're employees then I think we're employees, or at least that has always been my understanding. I believe that this matter will resolve itself after review and I just wish that it was handled more professionally prior to throwing around accusations of malfeasance," he said. "I support Arthaud's interest in this and I think it is something that we need an answer to moving forward, but this wasn't the way to handle it."