Local

Grant County Cuts Retainer For Labor Lawyer

Blue Mountain Eagle | March 26, 2013 4:36 p.m. | Updated: March 26, 2013 11:36 p.m.

Contributed By:

Scotta Callister Blue Mountain Eagle

CANYON CITY – The Grant County Court, after some heated sparring between Commissioner Boyd Britton and County Judge Scott Myers, is terminating its retainer agreement with labor lawyer Trent Whitford.

“I think it’s a big mistake. You’re going about it at the wrong time,” Britton told Myers. Referring to labor union talks, he added, “I don’t think you have the expertise to do the negotiating.”

Myers, however, said the time is right to end “needless spending on attorney fees.” He also said Whitford feels that with recent revisions in the Road Department contract, the county should be able to conduct labor negotiations without him this time around.

The clash came during the March 20 Court session, as members considered a letter drafted by Myers to terminate the monthly minimum fee agreement with Whitford. The agreement would have renewed automatically in April for six months if the Court hadn’t taken action.

Myers and Commissioner Chris Labhart agreed to sign and send the termination letter to Whitford. Britton did not sign it.

Labhart noted his experience negotiating the first labor contract between the City of John Day and its police union, saying “We didn’t involve an attorney until a draft was ready to sign.”

Under the Whitford agreement, the county was paying a base rate of $7,800 to cover 40 hours of work monthly, but the bills have regularly exceeded that. Payments to Whitford in the past six months ranged from $8,452.50 to $10,792.50, and totaled $55,097.35.

The termination letter doesn’t preclude all use of Whitford’s services, but it means the county will no longer qualify for reduced rates as a “major client.” Myers said the county would still like to call Whitford, but on an as-needed basis.

The Court first hired Whitford in 2009 to handle a contentious unfair labor practices complaint regarding the management of the Grant County Road Department. The Court continued to bring him in on labor contract issues and grievances, putting him on retainer that same year. In 2011, the Court passed a resolution appointing him as a second county counsel.

The county continues to contract with longstanding county counsel Ronald S. Yockim, with a $2,200 monthly retainer for general legal advice.

Labor disputes and legal costs were debated in the failed effort to recall former Judge Mark Webb, in 2009. Legal costs again cropped up as an issue in the campaign last year, when Myers, then a commissioner, defeated Webb in the primary.

Roadmaster Mark Hensley alluded to the change in county leadership when he quit the Road Department last month, saying he “couldn’t be productive with this Court.”

At the time, Hensley told the Eagle he wouldn’t stick around during the search for his replacement, nor did he expect to stay on in a different job. He did not submit a resignation letter.

In February, the Court decided Myers, Whitford and Clerk Brenda Percy should revise the roadmaster job description, and that Myers and Whitford should contact Hensley about his intentions.

In last week’s discussion, Britton took the judge to task for not writing to Hensley to clarify his future “participation, if any, in the Road Department.”

“I can’t believe that letter isn’t done,” Britton said. “Are you ever going to send a letter?”

Myers said he did contact Whitford about the letter, but didn’t like the results.

“I have yet to see a copy that I would be willing to sign, and put forward to a person who has left our employ,” Myers said.

Labhart questioned whether a resignation letter from Hensley would have resolved the issue.

Although there was no formal resignation, Myers said Hensley put a note on his final time card saying “This is my last day.”

The county is advertising for a new roadmaster.

Labhart said the person chosen for that job will have a big impact on future management-union interactions. He also said the county has important decisions to make in the future, and he hopes the Court can come together for the betterment of the Road Department.

Myers said he tried to talk Hensley into staying in his last days on the job, but the roadmaster was set on leaving. Now the judge is taking a different view.

“In my opinion, bringing Mr. Hensley back in any capacity would be a step backwards,” Myers said.

Hank Lissman, a former Road Department employee, said a previous Court had already decided that issue, ruling that a manager who resigned would not be allowed to return and take another job in the same department.

Britton remained unhappy about the letter.

“Judge Myers, I don’t know if I can trust you anymore,” he said. “You should have told us two weeks ago that you were not going to send that letter.”

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