Island judge wants to take city to court

The City Council’s decision last October to reduce the salary and benefits of Municipal Court Judge Kate Carruthers from two-thirds to half of a full-time equivalent (FTE) has led to the judge suing her employer.

Carruthers filed a lawsuit last week in Kitsap County Superior Court that claims the city is guilty of a breach of contract and that her salary should be returned to the 0.67 FTE level agreed upon when she was appointed to the four-year term in late 2009. She also seeks payment of her attorneys’ fees and “further relief” as the court deems proper.

The judge’s lawsuit is based on Article 11, Section 8 of the State Constitution, which “forbids the salary of any elected or appointed officer (including judges) from being reduced during the middle of his or her fixed term of office,” according to her complaint.

The city argues that budgetary issues, a reduced caseload at the court and the fact Carruthers agreed to an “appropriations” clause when signing her current contract led to the reduction from 0.67 FTE to 0.5 FTE in October 2010, effective in January.

Carruthers said at the time of the change last October: “I was appointed for four years and my contract cannot be modified by the city unilaterally, and that’s what it appears they are doing. And there’s good case law on that subject.”

Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer disagrees, citing the agreement made on Oct. 22, 2009, when Carruthers was re-appointed after spending more than three years on the bench. Bauer said in an email sent Wednesday:

“Because the City Council and the judge recognized that the city faced serious financial risks, both parties signed an employment contract that included an escape clause in the event of budget problems. Judge Carruthers acknowledges the escape clause. The City Council relied on that provision of the contract, but the judge now argues the provision was illegal. We hope we can get this legal dispute decided quickly and efficiently, without excessive legal costs for either party.”

The “escape clause” is the last paragraph of the contract and is titled an “appropriations” clause. It reads, in part:

“The terms of this agreement are contingent upon sufficient appropriations being made by the City Council for the performance of this agreement. If sufficient appropriations are not made, this agreement shall terminate. Termination pursuant to the terms... shall not result in any claim for payment or damages by the judge or the city. The city’s decision as to whether sufficient appropriations are available shall be accepted by the judge and shall be final.”

Carruthers did not publicly object prior to the council approving her contract in October 2009 when the council brought up the possibility of having to revisit it, according to the approved minutes of the meeting.

Prior to approval of Carruthers’ appointment, Councilor Debbie Vancil voiced her concerns regarding the city’s budget and the possibility of the court being consolidated with other jurisdictions as it would relate to the judge’s contract. Paul McMurray, the city attorney at the time, verified that her contract could be cancelled if funds were not appropriated.

Through her attorneys, the judge responded in December 2010 to Bauer’s position that the city’s “failure to make sufficient appropriations [FTE and salary reductions] has resulted in a modification to, rather than termination of, the employment agreement.”

According to her lawsuit, Carruthers responded with a statement that she “took a solemn oath” to uphold the State Constitution (Article 11, Section 8) and “is duty bound to decline Ms. Bauer’s invitation to accept a new or modified employment agreement at a reduced salary.”

The FTE reduction saves the city about $30,000 a year. It lowered Carruthers’ annual salary from $94,946 to $70,869, and benefits were cut by at least $6,000 a year.

Carruthers also argued in her complaint that despite her cut salary the “city has taken no action” to actually reduce her workload commensurately. In fact, the suit said, there was an increase in case filings in the court at Rolling Bay – from 4,223 in 2009 to 5,661 in 2010.

However, Councilor Bob Scales provided information during council meetings last October that indicated the city was paying too much for the salaries and benefits of the court staff (more than $500,000) for the actual caseload since many of the filings were payments for vehicle citations that were mailed into the court.

Citing information provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), a division of the Washington Courts System, Scales said AOC estimated that the city’s need requirement is 0.48 FTE based on its current caseload. Councilor Kim Brackett then made a motion that the judicial position be funded at 0.5 FTE, which the council approved by a 5-2 vote.

The council and Carruthers disagreed about the possibility of moving the court to Poulsbo, though negotiations for that move have broken down and it appears the court will remain in the Rolling Bay facility for the time being.

Carruthers went public with her argument that the court should remain on the island, and at Rolling Bay for the near future. She also criticized the Poulsbo court for having safety and security issues at its city building.

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