Board waives disciplinary measures against county attorneyCarlton County commissioners opted not to pursue any sort of disciplinary measures against Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler during their adjourned session this week.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Carlton County commissioners opted not to pursue any sort of disciplinary measures against Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler during their adjourned session this week. Pertler was arrested on July 17 and later charged with fourth-degree driving while impaired, speeding, driving over the center line, failure to signal, open bottle and no proof of insurance. He pleaded guilty in St. Louis County Court to third-degree driving while impaired – refusal to submit to a chemical test – on Sept. 11. He was sentenced to one year in the St. Louis County Jail, but the sentence was stayed for two years of supervised probation. He was fined $2,095, $1,000 of which will be stayed if he follows the conditions of his probation.
Pertler returned to his job with the county in late August after completing a month-long course of treatment at Hazelden Treatment Center in Center City, Minn.
Board Chair Ted Pihlman related to the board on Monday that he’d had a number of constituents question whether the county is planning any further disciplinary measures against Pertler for his behavior while serving as county attorney.
“As far as we could see,” said Pihlman, “there was no clear answer to that question.”
Pihlman was directed by the board to form a committee, along with Carlton County Auditor/Treasurer Paul Gassert and County Coordinator Dennis Genereau, to research the county’s options and obligations in regards to Pertler. In the course of that investigation, they met with Minneapolis attorney Scott T. Anderson of Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, P.A., who represents municipal clients in state and federal courts, as well as in police misconduct claims and elected officials’ salary and budget disputes.
Anderson was on hand at Tuesday’s meeting to discuss whether the county has the power to discipline elected officials such as Pertler.
“The short answer is ‘no,’” Anderson told the board, saying that, for the most part, Pertler and holders of the county’s other elected positions are not employees of the government entity. Rather, they are employees of the public, he said, and the county has limited authority over them. Anderson said the county’s only role is setting the budget that those elected officials must work within, as well as the salary levels (though holders of elected posts can seek relief from the court if they are unhappy with either of those things).
“If you [the county board] feel the performance of such an employee is lacking,” explained Anderson, “you can exercise your authority when it comes to the salary of that employee. You can’t reduce that salary during his or her elected term, however, but you can freeze it if you deem it necessary.”
Other than that, Anderson said there are really no viable options in terms of internal discipline in a case such as Pertler’s, and often the best advice is basically to do nothing.
“The board can pass a resolution indicating it is unhappy with things,” acknowledged Anderson, adding that sort of thing usually turns out very poorly in terms of the breakdown of the working relationship with that employee and/or lengthy, expensive lawsuits.
Anderson said attempts to remove elected officials from their posts have been rare in the state of Minnesota, citing only six or seven in the state’s history. Only one of those attempts, he said, was actually successful, and that was back in 1941 when a sheriff was removed for failure to take action against illegal gambling.
Anderson said an attempt to have an elected employee removed from his or her position would require the county to prove malfeasance – willful, wrongful action in either the performance of that person’s duties or in his or her personal character.
He said another option, though once again with only a minimal chance of success, would be for a petition to be initiated by the public, in which case 25 percent of registered voters in the county who voted for the position of county attorney in the last election would have to sign the petition and then have all of the signatures validated by the county auditor. The petition would then be sent to the chief of the Minnesota Supreme Court, who would appoint a special master to conduct a trial-like hearing, at the end of which a decision would be handed down. If the appeal is successful up to that point, Anderson said, a special election would have to be held within 30 days for the residents of the county to vote whether he should be removed from office.
Anderson said such a process usually turns out to be a long, drawn out procedure often lasting a minimum of six months and costing over $100,000 which may well be unsuccessful at the end of it.
“As far as I’m concerned,” stated Pihlman, “the greatest judges we have in Carlton County are those who vote for us. The next election [for the office of county attorney] is in 2014, and I’m a firm believer in not spending one cent on this. Mr. Pertler has made a name for himself for the good things he’s done, and it should be left up to the voters to decide when the time comes.”
The general sense of the board was in compliance with Pihlman’s statement, and no action was taken.
In other matters to come before the board at Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners unanimously approved the hiring of Drew Digby to serve as the county’s long term disaster recovery director. Genereau explained that Digby, who currently serves in a part-time capacity with the county and shares his work time with the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) in Duluth, will now become a temporary, full-time employee of Carlton County through December 2013.
“His role will be to work to ensure the greatest good for residents of the county impacted by the flood,” explained Genereau, “as well as serving on the regionwide disaster relief steering committee.”
Genereau said Digby will begin work full time on Oct. 22 and will be paid approximately $65,000 a year, in addition to county benefits, vacations, sick time and holiday time. His office will be in the Carlton County Law Enforcement building, and he can be contacted at 218-499-9480, the main number for Flood Homes With Hope.
Commissioners unanimously approved the refinancing of county indebtedness bonds dating back to 2003 (used to help finance the County Transportation Building) and 2006 (for road construction). Gassert said the refinancing should result in some $625,000 in savings during the course of the bond repayment, which commissioners said they hope will help bring down this year’s proposed tax levy somewhat.
Finally, the board voted to approve the use of off highway motorcycles (OHMs) on the entire length of the Soo Line Trail, from the Carlton-Aitkin county line to the Carlton-Pine county line and the Minnesota-Wisconsin state line. In a related measure, commissioners also approved OHM use on the shoulder of county-managed roads from County Road 11 and County Line Road south to Nickerson and the Nemadji State Forest.