Control of salaries for court employees at issue in lawsuit
By Marcy Stamper
In oral arguments last week, attorneys for Okanogan County argued that the county commissioners have the sole authority to set salaries for county staff.
At the same time, lawyers for the county’s superior court and juvenile department administrator asserted that the commissioners approved only a lump-sum budget and that the Superior Court judges have the discretion to set salaries and allocate that money to ensure the efficient operations of the court.
Visiting judge Veronica Galván from King County Superior Court heard oral arguments on Friday (Dec. 2) regarding Okanogan County’s motion to dismiss the case, which was filed by Dennis Rabidou, the county’s superior court administrator and juvenile department administrator in June.
Rabidou contends that the commissioners blocked the Superior Court judges from paying his agreed-upon salary. That salary included a raise to compensate Rabidou for taking on the second position as court administrator.
Rob McKenna, who is representing Okanogan County, said a state Supreme Court decision made clear that the commissioners, as the county’s legislative authority, have the sole power to set salaries for county staff. Washington law establishes salaries for certain court staff, including judges and bailiffs, but not superior court or juvenile department administrators, said McKenna.
Benjamin Compton, the attorney for Rabidou, said the state Constitution gives the Superior Court judges, as Rabidou’s direct supervisors, the inherent power to fix and control his salary. For courts to effectively maintain their independence as a separate branch of government, judges must have the authority to make decisions and compensate their staff, he said.
By attempting to determine how the court’s budgeted funds are used, the commissioners are micromanaging the court and not complying with state law, said Compton. Lump-sum budgets enable the Superior Court to exercise discretion in spending the money as long as they don’t exceed the bottom line, he said, noting that the court is not seeking additional funding to pay Rabidou.
In fact, the court is saving the county money because Rabidou is so “extraordinarily qualified” that he can perform two full-time jobs at once, said Compton.
Galván asked McKenna if Rabidou’s role is not unique because of his combined duties in the two jobs, but McKenna said Rabidou has the same responsibility as administrator of both the court’s staff and the juvenile facility. The plaintiffs have not shown that the salary increase is necessary for efficient functioning of the court, he said.
The judges can decide how to spend the money, but cannot change a salary, particularly since budgets are set annually but an employee’s salary extends beyond one budget year, argued McKenna.
All parties were represented by specially appointed attorneys because of the involvement of so many county departments and employees. Okanogan County Superior Court judges Chris Culp and Henry Rawson and Rabidou also joined the lawsuit, which was brought against the county and the three individual commissioners. The Washington Counties Risk Pool determined that the liability coverage it provides to the county does not include personnel matters and wages.
Galván said she would issue a written decision by Dec. 19 that would clearly outline her reasoning, since she assumed her ruling “would not be the last we hear of the case.”