Former state’s attorney says personnel changes made by County Board violate state law

County Board

Top row from left, Gary Farha and Barney Bier; bottom row from left, Kent Snider and Ryan Niekamp

QUINCY — Barney Bier, a former Adams County Board member and former state’s attorney, believes decisions announced by County Board chairman Kent Snider after a June 15 meeting are not in line with state law.

A letter dated June 16, signed by Snider and sent to county department heads, noted personnel changes with the County Board office and the county’s information technology department. 

The letter said a search committee seeking a successor to former Director of Administrative Services Sue Hester had met several times but “did not find what we were looking for.” The committee then approached Adams County Clerk/Recorder Ryan Niekamp, who agreed to oversee the County Board office and accept some of Hester’s responsibilities.

State’s attorney Gary Farha says Niekamp has been given the job of supervising the county’s human resources and payroll departments. He said Niekamp will be paid an additional “stipend” for that work. He is paid $65,276 as the county clerk.

Farha drawing up new contract for Niekamp

“As those interviews (to replace Hester) took place, there was a real question,” Farha said. “Do we need a full-time director when we have two employees who are doing the job very adequately and appropriately? 

“(County Board member) Matt Obert, who was kind of leading the search committee, did ask all of the members of that committee, ‘Do we really need to be spending, you know, $45,000 to $60,000 a year for this position when we’d be wiser just to spend a fraction of that and make certain that somebody is overseeing the job to be done by those two people?’”

The county paid Hester $68,000 for her job. She was hired for the newly created position in 2018 to assist with human resources, which had been handled by each department head, as well as finance duties.

Farha said Niekamp has not yet been paid for his new duties. The amount of the stipend must be agreed upon by the executive committee created to hire Hester’s replacement. 

“I’m drawing up a contract for that now,” Farha said. “This contract probably won’t be signed until (the July meeting of the County Board). The idea is that he would be able to manage those employees with questions and things like that. He will be making certain that the policy set by the County Board is followed. He’ll make sure that payroll happens.”

Bier: Board ‘playing with the word’ stipend

However, Bier, who served as Adams County’s state’s attorney from 1995 to 2004, believes the timing of Snider’s announcement makes it impossible for Niekamp to be paid for additional duties. 

He cites the Local Government Officer Compensation Act, which reads, “The compensation of elected officers of school districts and units of local government … which compensation is to be fixed by that school district or unit of local government, shall be fixed at least 180 days before the beginning of the terms of the officers whose compensation is to be fixed.”

The County Board approved Niekamp clerk/recorder on April 6, 2020, after Chuck Venvertloh left the position to take a job in the private sector. He then defeated Arianna Downard-Salih in a November 2020 special election to fulfill the final two years of Venvertloh’s term. The salary for the position was established in mid-2018 for the term set to expire in 2022.

“The characterization of it as a stipend, and the reason that Gary and everybody else is referring to as a stipend, is because if it is referred to as a salary, well, then it’s clearly in violation of the Constitution,” Bier said. “The fact of the matter is, it’s income. I think it’s going to be clear that that is going to be a violation of not only constitutional provisions but statutory provisions. It’s fairly significant. They’re playing with that word. 

“The County Board can characterize it however they want to. They certainly have the authority to impose additional duties, and they can add a stipend, but that stipend cannot take effect until the next officeholder or his successor takes office.”

Niekamp’s new duties not yet agreed upon

Farha says he believes the county is “going to be safe” paying a stipend to Niekamp.

“Again, we do have to look through and make certain that what we are contemplating is legal,” he said. “We have not been able to do that yet … but we do feel like he can oversee those two employees for the time being while this all gets figured out.”

Farha said none of the terms of Niekamp’s new duties have been agreed upon.

“(Snider’s announcement) was more for the information of the two people, the HR and payroll person, as to what’s going to happen,” he said. “They had questions like, ‘Am I going to be in charge?’ You know, just natural questions that had to be answered.”

Asked if Niekamp hasn’t officially been offered the new duties because a contract has not yet been created, Farha said, “Correct. He hasn’t been paid for the job at this point.”

Snider noted in his letter “the County Board officially offered the responsibilities of the CBO to Ryan Niekamp at its Tuesday meeting, which will take effect immediately.” Farha explained that Snider “probably meant ‘on a temporary basis until everything is finalized.’ He didn’t run that (letter) through me.”

Snider did not return a message asking for comment.

Payroll, HR traditionally handled by county clerk

Bier said the human resources and payroll duties had been handled by the county clerk’s office for many years.

“Going back to Lois Miller and George Schrage and Georgia Volm, that’s what they did,” he said. “These functions that they’re asking (Niekamp) to perform, well, the County Clerk’s office was performing these very same functions for years.”

Farha said the human resources and payroll responsibilities were removed from the clerk/recorder’s office when Venvertloh was in office.

“Everybody loved Chuck, but there were all sorts of problems when HR and payroll ran out of Chuck’s office … a lot of problems that I don’t want to go into with you,” Farha said. ”There were significant issues there, and that is what the County Board wants to make certain doesn’t happen again. They are very pleased with the work that Ryan Niekamp has done.”

Promotion of IT director also questioned

Snider’s letter also noted David Hochgraber had been promoted to the director of information technology “effective immediately.”

Hester had served in that role after John Frankenhoff resigned in June 2020. Frankenhoff, who also works for the Adams County 911 Center, was paid $26,118. The county budget approved last December calls for the position of senior network administrator to be paid $70,000.

Bier questioned the legality of Hochgraber’s promotion. He believes the County Board should have voted on it.

“The County Board, theoretically, could delegate that authority (to hire Hichgraber) to the chairman. I’m not aware of any official actions (of that delegation),” Bier said.

Farha said he believes Snider has the authority to make that appointment.

“That was given to him at an executive committee meeting. I think that was at the May meeting,” he said. “He clearly has that authority, because it’s not an elected office. (The IT department is) an office created by the County Board, and it’s like a department head position.”

The minutes of the May meeting of the County Board did not specify that Snider was given this authority.

Bier was appointed to a County Board seat in January 2020 after the resignation of John Heidbreder. He then resigned that seat in April 2021 in the wake of allegations of bullying by Hester. She wrote in her resignation letter that she was “personally hurt” by Bier. She added that he was “trying to destroy my reputation and years of relationship building that I have worked so hard to create.”

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