By BRADEN LAMMERS
A third-party audit requested of the Jeffersonville City Court will not move forward, but a lawsuit against the court might.
The Jeffersonville City Council approved moving forward on an audit at its meeting last week that would examine city court funds before the City Clerk would assume control of the court’s duties.
As part of the city’s transition from a third-class to a second-class city, the court’s role in collecting fines, fees and maintaining records moves under the control of the city clerk. However, a discrepancy still exists on who has control over Probationary User Fee, or PUF funds.
The Indiana State Board of Accounts agreed that Jeffersonville City Clerk Vicki Conlin should take over the duties of the clerk of the city court following the move to a second-class city, and issued a letter to that effect, which was presented at the council meeting.
It’s a change that City Court Judge Ken Pierce said he will not dispute, nor challenge.
“There is no dispute whatsoever that she is the clerk,” he said. “Now, there is some question about what the clerk’s duties are.”
According to the letter from the State Board of Accounts, “the only time that the judge may act as a clerk of the city court or appoint a clerk is in a third-class city. In a second-class city, this provision does not apply.”
“I agree with the State Board of Accounts opinion,” Pierce said. “My original proposal was exactly what the state board of accounts proposes here.”
He said under his original plan, the court would hand control of all duties over to the city clerk, except for control of the court’s PUF fund.
Pierce said that the state board of accounts allows for, and states in its letter, that the court retains the rights to the probationary funds it collects and does not have to cede control to the city clerk.
“In an audit of city court in a second-class city, we would take the position that the duties listed above should be carried out by the city clerk, subject to a situation where the statute clearly indicates that another party, such as the probation department, is to perform the task,” according to the state board of accounts letter.
Pierce said he is against relinquishing control of the court’s PUF funds or allowing a clerk’s office employee to work in the court office to manage the PUF funds.
Separation of powers?
At last week’s meeting, Conlin’s attorney, Larry Wilder, said a compromise was offered that would allow Pierce’s employees to remain in the city court office, but report to the clerk.
However, Pierce said he was opposed to the compromise, because it would create liability concerns for his office.
“I just think it’s dangerous when you’re combining two entire departments,” he said. “I think it’s dangerous to have up to $750,000 changing hands when you have ... two different employees with two different staffs and two different bosses. I think that’s a great liability and responsibility to put on anyone.
“[It’s] good business is to avoid it.”
He said the court normally collects between $200,000 to $250,000 annually in PUF money.
And up until June, Pierce said he and Conlin had an agreement was she would be collecting court costs and ordinance violation fees and his office would continue collecting PUF money.
According to a proposed lawsuit sent to Pierce, “Conlin would assert that a dispute exists as to which body of government shall collect those probation user fees as defined by Indiana statute. Moreover, Conlin would asset that a dispute exists at to whether the clerk and the city should receive a portion of those funds.”
A proposed resolution that outlines all authority to collect fees lies with the clerk was first introduced at an October city council meeting, but was tabled.
Wilder said in an interview Monday said he didn’t know if his client was averse to maintaining that structure. He added that the only thing Conlin was seeking in asking for the audit and threatening the lawsuit was to be certain of the clerk’s duties and the court’s finances.
“She just wants the opportunity to have oversight, because she’s responsible for it,” Wilder said. “Judge Pierce perceives this as an attack on him, but it’s not.”
Audit not allowed
Pierce said he was offended by the request and the tactics taken in asking for a third-party audit of his finances.
“If it wasn’t so serious, it would be laughable,” he said. “I think a line was crossed, it was a line of decency. I can’t believe not one attorney in that room knew that it was against statute,” he said of seeking a third-party audit. “They had to know it was inappropriate.”
Charlie Pride, supervisor of cities, towns and libraries with the State Board of Accounts, agreed that the council did not have the authority to seek an outside audit of the court’s finances. He said the board of accounts is the auditing body for governmental entities and the performs an annual audit of the city’s finances.
Pierce pointed to state statute IC5-11-1-7, which limits who can perform audits of government units to the state examiner, who also may use outside private examiners.
“At no point did one of the three municipal attorneys in that meeting stand up and say guys, ‘this is contrary to state statute,’” Pierce said.
And it is not expected that the state board will have an examiner take a special look at the court’s finances before any duties are transferred.
“We would consider that a duplication of services,” Pride said.
He added the state board would rely on its annual audit.
As for who would be allowed to retain control of PUF funds, Pride said it is not specifically spelled out in state law who controls the fund, as it lists “the probation department or the clerk of a city.”
However, he added “that would be our recommendation that the court would decide whether or not the collect the probation user fee.”
Paying for employees
Pierce explained his desire to hold onto control of the PUF funds was because it is how he funds several salaries for employees in his office.
“A lot of my employees are hybrid employees; that means they get paid through PUF salary and also general fund salary,” he said.
He added if the employees are moved under the clerk’s purview it may end up costing the city more.
“If a probation department employee gets moved to another part of the city, it’s going to cost the city approximately $100,000 over the next three years,” Pierce said.
He explained instead of the costs being covered under PUF funds — which are costs paid by those who have had a judgment against them — they would go into the general fund budget.
Even with the confusion of who will take over what duties, Pierce said he is still willing to try and work out a deal.
“At this point, I’m still willing to negotiate,” he said. “She’s still the clerk. I don’t know why this got so blown out of proportion other than poor communication.”
Wilder said the two sides are scheduled to meet today with hopes of avoiding a lawsuit.