Local ruling on jury panel, auditors upheld

The Commonwealth Court has found the Warren County Commissioners did not exceed their discretion by denying health benefits and salary increases to five county employees, affirming a ruling by President Judge Maureen Skerda in October of 2012.

Attorney Bernard J. Hessley filed a lawsuit on behalf of County Auditors David Pirillo, Nikita Rugg and Suzanne Swanson, and Jury Commissioners Linda Hessley and Richard Campbell on Feb. 10, 2012.

“In short, we hold that the County Commissioners did not abuse their discretion in terminating Appellants’ fringe benefits” and the commissioners “complied with the General Salary Act in fixing the Jury Commissioners’ annual base salary, and that was all that was required of them,” according to a ruling filed Thursday by a panel of three Commonwealth Court judges.

Hessley said he plans to file a petition of appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“In my view it’s a poorly reasoned decision in that the Commonwealth Court in the decision never gave any reason or authority to support the act of the county commissioners in equating the auditors and the jury commissioners who are elected public officers with part time employees for the purposes of benefits,” Hessley said Monday.

Hessley said the county code allows for benefits to all county officials and offers benefits to employees generally.

“There’s no differentiation between full-time employees and part-time employees” and if it’s offered generally to the employees “then all county officials get it,” he said.

According to court documents, Hessley said the commissioners denied hospitalization, prepaid prescription, health insurance, life insurance, and dental insurance to the jury commissioners and the auditors and “no other elected officials salaries and/or benefits were reduced and/or eliminated” without reason during a public meeting on Dec. 7, 2010.

The salaries of the jury commissioners were reduced and the auditors received a raise in salary between 2012 and 2015, Hessley said in paperwork.

The Commonwealth Court did rule the original General Salary Act set the minimum salary for jury commissioners at $2,000, however, that was later raised to $3,000 on Jan. 1, 1980 and could not be reduced below that amount.

“The facts in this matter are that on December 7, 2010, the Warren County Commissioners held a special public meeting. At this meeting, the Warren County Commissioners decided not to provide benefits to the jury commissioners and the auditors. Plaintiffs are elected jury commissioners and auditors who work less than 20 hours per week,” Skerda said in her ruling. “Part-time employees are not eligible for fringe benefits…The jury commissioners and the auditors work less than 20 hours per week, and Warren County does not offer part-time employee benefits. Therefore, the Warren County Commissioners did not abuse their discretion in no longer providing benefits to the jury commissioners and the auditors.”

“The Plaintiffs respectively conclude that the action of the Warren County Commissioners taken on December 7, 2010 was arbitrary, capricious, without just cause, and violative of the specific provisions of the County Code…” and “…must be reversed and vacated and full salary with raises afforded to the Jury Commissioners and full benefits in terms of group health insurance, life insurance and hospitalization be afforded to both the Auditors and Jury Commissioners retroactive to the date that they assumed office,” Hessley said in a brief filed on Sept. 12, 2012.

The county commissioners voted unanimously on Wednesday, June 12, to abolish the office of jury commissioner effective Jan. 1, 2016.

Hessley said after that vote the bill abolishing the positions is unconstitutional and the procedures following the abolishment of the positions should be addressed by the state legislature.

Gov. Tom Corbett signed Senate Bill 808 into law as Act 4 on May 6 to allow counties to eliminate the jury commissioners’ offices.

According to the resolution, “the Board of Commissioners of the County of Warren has received information that abolishing the office of jury commissioner in Warren County would result in a cost savings to the County.”