Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

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April 30, 2014

Jury: Layoffs weren't politically motivated

CATLETTSBURG —  The Boyd Fiscal Court’s January 2011 decision to lay off five county employees was motivated by finances, not politics, a Boyd Circuit Court jury ruled on Wednesday.

The seven-man, five-woman jury deliberated for only about an hour before returning a verdict in favor of the fiscal court and Boyd Judge-Executive William “Bud” Stevens, the defendants in the wrong-termination suit filed by the five.

The verdict capped off a three-day trial in Judge C. David Hagerman’s court.

In ruling for the defendants, the jury rejected the claims of the plaintiffs — Leslie May, Michelle “Missy” Miller, Angie Durham, Matt Shelton and Tim Knipp — that they were discharged because they were perceived of supporting in the November 2010 general election.

The three women and Shelton all claimed their layoffs were political payback by Stevens because he believed they supported former Boyd Road Foreman Keith Robinette, Stevens’ Republican opponent in the election. Stevens, a Democrat, defeated Robinette by only 14 votes to win a second term. It first appeared Stevens had lost by a nine-vote margin, but he prevailed after additional votes that hadn’t been tabulated were later discovered.

Knipp alleged he was laid off at the behest of County Commissioner David Salisbury because he is related by marriage Mark Bell, Salisbury’s Republican opponent in the 2010 general election.

Stevens isn’t running this year for a third term as judge-executive. Salisbury is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for judge-executive.

The women all testified that Stevens had referred to them as “back-stabbers” and warned them their jobs were in jeopardy for not supporting his candidacy. Stevens denied ever making such statements.

May, Shelton and Knipp all worked under Robinette at the county road department. Shelton and Knipp were subsequently recalled and continue to work for the county. May, Durham and Miller all have found other jobs, but for less money and lesser benefits than what they were receiving as county employees.

Durham worked as the county’s payroll and human resources supervisor and Miller was in charge of administering the payroll and net profits tax. Their positions, along with May’s, were eliminated.

The plaintiffs also alleged the layoffs were not done in accordance with the county’s personnel policy, which dictates that seniority be considered when choosing employees to lay off, and that laid-off employees be given first shot at future job opportunities for which they are qualified.

The plaintiffs were among 17 county employees who were furloughed by the fiscal court in January 2011. Attorney Bruce Leslie, who represented Stevens and the fiscal court, told jurors the layoffs were done out of financial necessity because the county was facing a severe fiscal crisis at the time, with not even enough money on hand to meet its payroll. He also said eliminating Miller’s and Durham’s jobs and outsourcing their duties had saved Boyd County’s taxpayer’s $355,000 to date.

The county farmed Durham’s duties out to Huntington Bank for $11,000 a year — less than a third of Durham’s salary — and transferred the job of administering the payroll tax to County Clerk Debbie Jones’ office. Jones charged the fiscal court $2,500 per quarter for the service, but, according to Stevens, the court receives that money back at the end of the fiscal year in the form of excess fees.

Stevens declined to comment on the verdict, saying he preferred to let Leslie speak for him. Leslie said he believed his clients had been “vindicated” by the jury’s decision.

“Judge Stevens has always had the best interests of the taxpayers of Boyd County at heart,” he said, adding that laying off workers wasn’t something the fiscal court wanted to do, “It was something they had to do.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Gordon Dill declined to comment on the verdict.

The plaintiffs were seeking compensation for lost earnings and up to $500,000 each for emotional pain and suffering.

Civil trials in Kentucky, unlike criminal ones, do not require unanimous verdicts, only for nine of 12 jurors to agree. However, Hagerman said each of the verdict forms was signed by the jury foreman, indicating the decisions were unanimous.

KENNETH HART can be reached at khart@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2654.

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