Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Two Election Commissioners Resign in Pension Snafu

Posted By on Tue, Nov 16, 2010 at 6:10 PM

UPDATE Shelby County Attorney Kelly Rayne has informed Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini that Commissioners Stamson and Johnson may retain their employment while legal options are being reviewed.

One option apparently being explored is that Stamson and Johnson might be permitted to draw their county pensions while serving without pay -- something that both men have volunteered to do. County commissioner Mike Carpenter, whose inquiry prompted the change of status for S tamson and Johnson, said he would be satisfied with some such solution.

Steve Stamson (left); James Johnson
  • Steve Stamson (left); James Johnson
ORIGINAL STORY: In a dramatic development prompted by a Shelby County commissioner’s inquiry, two members of the county Election Commission have resigned in response to a ruling by county attorney Kelly Rayne suspending their pension payments as long as they remained on the county payroll.

The two Election Commission members are Democrat James Johnson and Republican Steve Stamson — both of whom tendered their resignations to Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini Tuesday.

As Johnson explained in his letter of resignation, “I have been informed that a letter from the Administrator of the Shelby County Personnel department has been sent notifying me that if I continue to serve in the capacity of Election Commissioner that my pension would be stopped. Effective immediately, with regret, I am officially resigning my position as an Election Commissioner.”

Both Stamson, the former Juvenile Court Clerk, who was appointed to succeed Brian Stephens in October, and Johnson, who served as chief county Election Administrator, had been serving as Election Commission members following their leaving active county service and after they had begun to receive their county pensions.

In a letter to Rayne, County commissioner Mike Carpenter had inquired as follows:

1. Can some election commissioners be classified as part-time employees, while others are classified as temporary employees?
2. Can the County Commission or Mayor adopt a personnel policy that forbids reclassification of an employee simply for the purpose of financially benefiting the employee or prospective employee?
3. Can the county Commission adopt a policy preventing current and future election commissioners who are retired County employees from collecting both their County pension and a County paycheck while employed with the election commission?

In a reply dated last Wednesday, November 10, Rayne answered that state law would not permit Election Commission members to be regarded as “temporary,” thereby preventing such members from both collecting county paychecks while simultaneously receiving pension payments. Since their appointment was for two-year terms, the employees would have to be classified as "part-time;" as such, they would be actively contributing into the pension fund and would be ineligible to receive pension payments.

Carpenter said that he made the original inquiry of Rayne some weeks ago in deference to a constituent's request and that both Stamson and Johnson had specifically requested a change of status to "temporary" so as to maintain their pension status. "Not every employee can do that; so I regarded the issue to be one of fairness," Carpenter said.

Responding to Johnson’s resignation letter, Giannini accepted the resignation with regret, conveyed appreciation for the “intangible value” of Johnson’s, and said, “I am outraged with the way in which Shelby County Government handled your situation. The process, the abrupt nature of the opinion handed down, and the complete failure to offer some reasonable notice of its application has left the Shelby County Election Commission in a very precarious position. It is a disservice to all voters in Shelby County and jeopardizes our ability to conduct our statutory responsibilities.”

Giannini said that, because of the resignation of Stamson and Johnson, the five-member Election Commission (at full strength, composed of three Republicans and two Democrats) was at least temporarily unable to convene a quorum and perform its functions. He also suggested that the strict letter of Rayne’s opinion, forbidding simultaneous receipt of pensions and county payroll checks, might encompass “one or two members” of the Shelby County Commission, who could be forced either into resigning from the commission or seeing their pension payments suspended.

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