County board, judges discuss court position

From left, Director of Court Operations Charity Mason, District Court Judge Roger Kangas, Probate Court Judge Cheryl Hill and Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Mazzuchi listen during the Marquette County Board meeting Tuesday. Those shown above, in addition to District Court Judge Karl Weber and several other county employees, attended in support of the director of court operations position, which the board has discussed the possible elimination of. (Journal photo by Kelsie Thompson)

MARQUETTE — The Marquette County Board earlier this week continued discussions surrounding the director of court operations position, welcoming input from several county employees, including Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Mazzuchi and District Court Judge Roger Kangas.

The position, currently held by Charity Mason, was approved by the County Board around this time last year with the intent of alleviating stress on the court system anticipated by the loss of a judgeship at the end of 2016. Mason had formerly served as district court administrator/ magistrate.

Vice Chair Joe Derocha said Tuesday there was a mistake in information provided to the board when they had originally approved the position last year.

“There was an error in revenue cost allocation,” he said, adding that when he voted on the item last year, he believed annual compensation for the new position was to reflect an increase of $7,000 from the former district court administrator position’s wages, for a total annual compensation of $77,000 plus benefits.

“That is not now what was represented nor what we approved,” Derocha said. “We now have a position that’s in excess of what we, or I, perceived to be what we voted on that day.”

According to documentation provided by the county’s finance manager, the total annualized compensation for the director of court operations position in 2017 is expected to be $88,58.68, with an additional $3,600 in benefits. Wages alone are expected to be $82,930.68.

According to archived meeting minutes from the April 2016 meeting, the total annual impact to the county’s budget was expected to be $98,000.

Mazzuchi said Tuesday that an increase of $11,000, as outlined by the county’s judicial council, should have been presented to the board in April 2016.

“I understand … that in the meeting in 2016, that the administrator inadvertently said $7,000,” she said. “We put it in our memo, almost a year before that motion, that it was going to be $11,000.”

Some county employees came to Mason’s defense at the meeting Tuesday, although commissioners assured the public the discussion was not intended to come across as a personal attack.

“This isn’t about the person that has the job,” Derocha said. “It’s about the job that was presented by staff to this board.”

Prosecuting Attorney Matt Wiese told commissioners Mason has been an asset to the county. Among other things, he said she’s protected the county against legal liability, secured more than $1 million in grant funding for the treatment courts and has helped to streamline operations between law enforcement, the prosecutor’s office and the courts.

“I know this may sound like boring stuff and mechanical things to anyone else, but she’s been very careful to make sure that we dont put into jeopardy someone’s rights, somebody’s liberty, and expose the county to liability,” Wiese said.

Wiese also cited the loss of a judgeship, and how the director of court operations position is needed to fill that void.

“We need someone to basically have the judges’ backs so that they can be judges and do their job and the cases can flow to the courts like they’re supposed to do,” he said.

Derocha again on Tuesday made a motion to eliminate the director of court operations position, and asked the board to reinstate Mason’s former position of district court administrator at the previous rate of compensation.

The motion was again postponed, and Civil Counsel Steve Pence was advised to check into several issues.

Pence was asked to research the legality of eliminating the position — specifically whether that authority lies with the board or the judges — as well as if retroactive pay is permitted for civil employees and whats steps should be taken if the board was provided incorrect information by staff.

Derocha said Mason was paid several months of retroactive pay, from the time the position was approved in late April of 2016, to Jan. 1 of that same year.

Pence said at the meeting Tuesday he did not believe the County Board had the authority to eliminate the position, but said he’d research the topic more before the next meeting.

Commissioner Karen Alholm said she opposes the elimination, adding that discussion surrounding the issue is “faulty, unnecessary and not constructive.

“This position was part of our strategic planning,” she said. “(The board) sat in a room all together and this was part of the discussion — creating this postion because we were going to lose a circuit court judge and how best the courts be served, the county be served in that transition.”

She said she believes the only figure that should matter is the $98,000 impact on the county’s budget.

“I think it would be poor judgment now to go back and look at this job,” Alholm said. “I’m not sure that we even have a legal right to address it at this point.”

Kelsie Thompson can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. Her email address is kthompson@miningjournal.net.