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Secrecy cloud lifts as county hires engineer

Staff writer

It took seven executive sessions spanning three commission meetings over six days, but Marion County now has a signed employment contract with its new engineer, Brice Goebel, who previously worked for the state transportation department in Marion.

After 1 hour 37 minutes of negotiating his contract — all behind closed doors, among themselves, with legal counsel, and with Goebel himself — what emerged Monday was a document saying Goebel will be an “at-will” employee, able to quit or be fired from his $80,000-a-year position at any time without reason.

The contract, a copy of which was obtained by the newspaper under the Kansas Open Records Act, would provide two months’ severance unless he was fired for fraud, dishonesty, insubordination, “substantial willful misconduct,” or commission of a felony.

Severance also would apply if he resigned at the formal or informal urging of two or more commissioners.

Perhaps the most significant clauses require commissioners to review his performance annually, in writing, using criteria developed jointly with him.

Commissioners also agreed to establish, in writing, an annual prioritized list of reasonable goals and objectives for the county’s road and bridges department, which he will direct.

The contract precludes Goebel from working for any other employer and gives him the right to take compensatory time off as he deems fit for hours worked outside normal office hours.

Still to be resolved is how the new engineer position will impact the county’s road and bridge superintendent position, occupied for the past 3½ years by Jesse Hamm.

When commissioners discussed the engineer position May 17, just before offering the job to Goebel, consensus was that the road and bridge position would be eliminated and that separate road supervisor and bridge/culvert supervisor positions might be combined.

At Monday’s meeting, however, no indication was given that Hamm’s position would be eliminated, only that a new job description needed to be created for it and subordinate positions.

“For at least the first month, there’s probably going to be overlap,” commission chairman Kent Becker said, “but after that…?”

Commissioners agreed to meet this coming Monday with Goebel and Hamm to, in Becker’s words, “nail this down.”

In other matters at meetings Friday and Monday:

Spread out payments

Commissioners voted 2-1 Friday, with Novak opposed, not to pay cash for a new $31,936 tire slicer for the county’s waste transfer station.

Instead, the county will buy the slicer on credit, at 3.43% interest, from Marion National Bank, using a lease-purchase agreement to avoid having to seek voter approval for the relatively small debt.

The slicer is not part of any recycling effort, transfer station chief Bud Druse explained Monday.

Sliced tires still will go to a landfill. They just will be sliced first so they take up less space and do not “float” to the top of other refuse.

Right to comment

Despite Novak’s concerns that the public had insufficient opportunity to see and possibly comment on it, commissioners approved a five-year regional solid waste management plan that will have to be updated to include the new slicer.

“It seems ridiculous to me that we have to approve something we know is not accurate,” Novak said.

She objected that public notice of the commissioners’ hearing on the plan did not include any reference to what the plan said or how to inspect a copy of it.

She also objected to why it was presented for approval on the day it was due.

“I don’t know why we get everything on the last day,” she said. “Going forward I want things advertised a whole lot better than we’re doing.”

Approval was portrayed as a mere formality, signing off on an easily amended document already approved by state and regional authorities.

“We kind of approve things after the fact,” Becker said.

Trayce Warner, Democratic candidate for one of two new commission seats to be filled this fall, interrupted Novak at one point, saying the public sometimes failed to “avail themselves of all the facts” and “that’s why they elect representatives.”

But Novak cut her off, saying, “Excuse me, ma’am, I’m talking.”

Wind farm legal bills

Novak, who has objected to burgeoning legal bills for advice rendered to county employees about the proposed Expedition Wind project in southern Marion County, asked commissioners to obtain and inspect behind closed doors records she was denied permission to look at as an individual.

Some documents she requested under the Kansas Open Records Act were provided but other were withheld.

County counselor Brad Jantz explained that documents that included legal advice to the county or its employees did not have to be disclosed to the public.

As an elected official, Novak asked to view these documents along with other commissioners during a future closed-door session, and other commissioners agreed.

Expedition Wind president Pat Pelstring then asked Jantz whether the Kansas Open Meetings Law forbade commissioners from sharing what they might learn in closed-door sessions.

Jantz replied that it did not, but that other laws governing such things as employee privacy might result in legal action if a commissioner were to share confidential information from a closed session.

Last modified June 6, 2019

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