Resident questions council about lawyer, pay grades

A local resident had questions for the Brown County Council about its hiring of a lawyer from Indianapolis and doing a pay grade evaluation of county employees.

At the April 17 meeting, after the council voted to approve an additional appropriation of $10,000 to pay Barnes & Thornburg LLP’s Jake German to represent the council for ten months, resident Sherri Mitchell asked why the council couldn’t use the county attorney.

The county commissioners employ German as the “county attorney” under a separate, $3,000-per-month contract.

Council President David Critser signed a $1,000-per-month agreement with German on March 27.

“We have piggy-backed on the county law about all we could. We decided we needed to have one as our own,” Critser said.

Mitchell asked the council why they didn’t consider looking at other, less expensive lawyers before signing a contract with German.

Critser estimated hiring a local attorney would cost $70,000 to $75,000 on average per year. “I want a professional who knows what’s going on in government laws, not a general practitioner,” Critser said of hiring German.

Commissioner Diana Biddle, who was in the audience, said the biggest expense when hiring a lawyer locally is having to pay another attorney when conflicts of interest arise.

“They (Barnes & Thornburg) deal specifically with government laws,” Biddle said. “(Barnes & Thornburg) is probably the No. 1 recommended government law firm.”

Critser said another benefit of hiring German is getting answers to questions quickly rather than in two or three days with local attorneys because Barnes & Thornburg has people working in its offices on-call for issues like that.

Council member Darren Byrd said he had some of the same concerns as Mitchell before he joined the council.

“We get an answer in the matter of five minutes in what would have taken three days before. They are a very knowledgeable legal firm that deals in state law, specifically state law. … It’s a significant resource for the county,” Byrd said.

Mitchell told the council that her taxes are high, which is why she decided to come to the meeting and question spending.

Later in the meeting, council Vice President Keith Baker announced that the council was no longer pursuing a salary study from a Muncie company that would have cost between $39,000 to $70,000.

Instead the council reached out to the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University about having graduate students with degrees in public administration who are working on their master’s degrees do the salary study of the county’s 140 employees.

The study would be a part of their master thesis and would take place during the fall semester.

Mitchell asked council members why they were looking at possibly increasing county employees’ pay by conducting the study.

“We have to be able to justify what we’re paying with taxpayers, what we’re paying to county employees,” Baker answered.

“We want to make sure the person over here doing this type of work is being paid equal to what her work is doing, and this one over here is being paid equal to what her work is doing, as a cross-reference to what everyone else is doing in the state of Indiana,” Critser added.

Biddle said that incorporating more technology has resulted in changes in job descriptions, and a study is needed to determine that employees are being compensated fairly for those changes.

But Mitchell disagreed with any pay raises for county employees since they receive benefits. The average pay for county employees is $12 per hour.

“If $12 is not good enough for any of your employees with their excellent benefit packages, they can go work at McDonald’s as far as I am concerned,” she said.

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Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.