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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Kolpin sworn in -- salary disputed

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Ryan Kolpin (right) was sworn in July 31 as the new Cherokee County attorney by Dan Meloy, who recently became the Cherokee County magistrate. Photo by Ken Ross
The mood was jovial in the board of supervisors' room following the swearing in of Ryan Kolpin as Cherokee County Attorney on Tuesday.

Kolpin received hugs from his seven children, while Lori Kolpin -- his wife and law partner -- photographed the moment. This was followed by congratulatory handshakes from all of the supervisors.

But before the handshakes, before the hugs, even before the swearing in, the new county attorney and the board of supervisors became involved in a legal dispute.

Ryan Kolpin was clearly the favorite candidate for Cherokee County Attorney at the Kolpin household. He achieved a landslide victory, despite the fact that the majority of members of his household were ineligible to vote. He was sworn in on July 31st followed by congratulatory hugs. Photo by Ken Ross
The possibility of avoiding litigation now appears dependent on the parties seeking a formal legal opinion from the Iowa Attorney General's Office and then agreeing to abide by the decision. Neither of these conditions was explicitly agreed upon at the Tuesday meeting.

Two things that were explicitly stated at the meeting were that the board of supervisors will pay only $70,000 for the position of county attorney and that Kolpin will not accept that salary.

The supervisors contend that the salary for the position is at the supervisors' discretion since the Cherokee County Compensation Board made no motion regarding the county attorney's salary during the compensation board's meeting in January. Kolpin contends that since the compensation board took no action altering the county attorney's salary during the compensation board's last meeting, the salary of $90,000, in effect at that time, was confirmed.

Jeff Simonsen, supervisor, noted that other counties pay anywhere from the upper 50s to over $100,000 for a county attorney.

"It seems that $70,000 is in the ballpark," Simonsen said.

Kolpin stated that $70,000 is not sufficient considering his experience and training.

"If your line in the sand is 70,000, I believe my line in the sand is at 90,000," Kolpin said.

The position of county attorney went from part-time to full-time as of Jan. 1 of this year. The term of the former county attorney, Mark Cozine, ended on Dec. 31. The supervisors had adjusted the salary to $55,000 for the change to full-time attorney prior to the election, although this amount would not now meet the minimum required by state law. The minimum salary for a county attorney is set by the state at 45 percent of a district court judge's salary, this 45 percent now being $57,825.

Cozine did not seek election to a term as full-time attorney, nor did anyone else. No one appeared on the ballot for county attorney in November and the top write-in vote getter (Cozine) refused the position.

Before the November election, when it was known that no one would be on the ballot, the supervisors began advertising for the position, with the salary to be negotiated.

The supervisors hired Jamie Bowers, a former federal prosecutor, at a salary of $90,000, with the starting date set at Jan. 1. Since he wasn't a resident of the county at the time of hire, his initial contract was as a temporary 90-day employee.

The Cherokee County Compensation Board met on Jan. 18. The compensation board meets annually to make salary adjustment recommendations to the Cherokee County Board of Supervisors for elected county officials. The compensation board makes recommendations separately for each position.

The recommendations are not fully binding on the supervisors but the supervisors are restricted in what they can do with the recommendations.

The supervisors can agree to the recommendations (as occurred this year, effective at the start of the fiscal year on July 1), reject any salary increases or approve a percentage of the recommendations between 0 and 100 percent.

The supervisors cannot approve a different percentage of the recommendation for one office than it does for another.

For example, if the compensation board recommended a $1,000 salary increase for supervisors, a $2,000 increase for the auditor and a $3,000 salary increase for the sheriff, then a decision by the supervisors to increase the supervisors' salaries by $500 would mean that the auditor's salary would increase by $1,000 and the sheriff's salary would be increase by $1,500, all half of the recommended amount.

The supervisors cannot increase salaries beyond 100 percent of the recommendation of the compensation board.

In the minutes of the Jan. 18 compensation board meeting, compensation board member Dan Meloy made the comment that $90,000 is higher than most other counties in the state pay a county attorney.

There were no further comments about the county attorney salary quoted in the minutes. There was no motion mentioned in the minutes about the county attorney's salary.

In March, Bowers informed the supervisors of his intent to resign but agreed to stay on while another attorney was being sought.

Again the supervisors sought applicants and conducted interviews. James Tiernan was hired as the county attorney at a salary of $70,000 per year. He initially started as assistant county attorney on May 22 and began duties as the county attorney June 1.

A petition circulated to have a special election for county attorney. Both Tiernan and Kolpin were on the ballot for the special election held July 17. Kolpin won by a landslide.

Prior to being sworn in on Tuesday, Kolpin was on the agenda to address the supervisors on the subject of the salary. Kolpin presented an email from Christie Scase, assistant attorney general, in which Scase states, "Even though the compensation board may not have included the $90,000 salary amount for the county attorney on the schedule of information provided to the supervisors, I believe it is clear that the compensation board knew this was the salary established by the supervisors in December and failed to recommend a revision of that salary. In doing so, the compensation board, in essence, endorsed that salary amount."

The comment by the assistant attorney general is not the same as a formal attorney general opinion, which involves an extensive review of the facts of a case over a number of weeks.

Tiernan, in what he referred to as his last advice to the supervisors during his final 20 minutes as county attorney, said, "I don't think the AG's office was given all the facts."

Tiernan noted that Bowers was never appointed permanently to the position of county attorney. His first temporary appointment for 90 days was followed by another 90-day appointment after Bowers indicated his intent to resign.

Tiernan suggested the supervisors leave the salary at $70,000 until a formal opinion is issued by the AG's office.

The supervisors voted to leave the salary at $70,000. This might imply that the supervisors were following Tiernan's advice, which in turn might imply that the supervisors would comply with any formal attorney general's opinion on the matter. However, the supervisors have made no commitment to comply with a formal attorney general's opinion.

A judge might give an attorney general's formal opinion weight but it is not binding upon a district court and a district court decision can be appealed.

Kolpin also made no commitment to comply with an attorney general's opinion nor even to wait for an attorney general's opinion before filing a lawsuit.

Ryan and Lori Kolpin have a law firm in Aurelia. Ryan Kolpin has to give up his private law practice as he had to give up serving as magistrate of Cherokee County when he ran for county attorney.

He is a 1987 graduate of Aurelia High School. He received his bachelor's degree from Coe College in Cedar Rapids with a double major in Math and Computer Science.

Kolpin attended law school at Creighton University in Omaha. He first passed the Bar in Nebraska and practiced there for a short time before passing the Iowa Bar and beginning work at the Miller Law firm in Cherokee.

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