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Judge rips town over contracts

<p>Matt Ward / Pahrump Valley Times - Pahrump Town Board Chairman Harley Kulkin (left) joins Town Manager Susan Holecheck and Town Attorney Bret Meich for Monday’s appearance before Judge Kim Wanker. Wanker is expected to issue her decision next week on Nye County’s attempt to thwart the town’s efforts to implement and ratify employee contracts for department heads.</p>

Matt Ward / Pahrump Valley Times - Pahrump Town Board Chairman Harley Kulkin (left) joins Town Manager Susan Holecheck and Town Attorney Bret Meich for Monday’s appearance before Judge Kim Wanker. Wanker is expected to issue her decision next week on Nye County’s attempt to thwart the town’s efforts to implement and ratify employee contracts for department heads.

<p>Matt Ward / Pahrump Valley Times - Several town and county officials were present during arguments made by Nye County District Attorney Brian Kunzi and Town Attorney Bret Meich on Monday.</p>

Matt Ward / Pahrump Valley Times - Several town and county officials were present during arguments made by Nye County District Attorney Brian Kunzi and Town Attorney Bret Meich on Monday.

<p>Matt Ward / Pahrump Valley Times - Nye County District Attorney Brian Kunzi shares a moment with Town Board member Amy Riches prior to Monday’s court proceedings before Judge Kim Wanker. Riches sponsored the agenda item that is now under scrutiny.</p>

Matt Ward / Pahrump Valley Times - Nye County District Attorney Brian Kunzi shares a moment with Town Board member Amy Riches prior to Monday’s court proceedings before Judge Kim Wanker. Riches sponsored the agenda item that is now under scrutiny.

A District Court judge has made permanent a temporary restraining order sought by county officials earlier this month over a series of contract proposals that would have provided golden parachutes for top Town of Pahrump staff members.

Judge Kimberly Wanker issued the order on Wednesday. It states in part: “The Town Board of the Unincorporated Town of Pahrump, it (sic) officers, agents, employees and attorneys, and those persons in active concert or participation with them are hereby restricted and restrained from entering into and approving any employment contracts by or on behalf of the Town of Pahrump that have any legal force or effect beyond the date of dissolution of the elected town board form of government to occur on midnight, January 5, 2015.”

On Aug. 12, the town board’s agenda contained an item proposing new contracts for five top town staffers. Provisions of those contracts included items such as a nine-month lump sum severance payment upon termination, nine months of health insurance coverage and nine months of additional coverage through COBRA. Also, the proposed contracts were all auto-renewing, essentially becoming perpetual employment contracts as long as the employees received positive work reviews.

The five contracts were for Arlene Ledbetter, the town’s tourism director, Human Resources Director Terry Bostwick, Town Manager Susan Holecheck — curiously, she agreed to a new employment contract with a nice raise in salary just last September — Matt Luis, buildings and grounds manager, as well as Pahrump Valley Fire and Rescue Services Chief Scott Lewis. Ledbetter, Bostwick and Holecheck were to receive two-year deals, while Lewis and Luis were to receive new benefits as part of their perpetually-renewing, five-year contracts.

Michael Sullivan, the town’s finance director, was not to receive a new contract, but it was learned during a court hearing last week that he has an employment agreement that isn’t set to expire until 2020.

Wanker blasted the town in her order, characterizing the contracts she saw as “poorly drafted, contain unenforceable provisions and are replete with golden parachute provisions.”

At the time of last week’s court hearing on the matter, Town Manager Susan Holecheck said the contracts were being brought to the attention of the town board because she suspected the town was open to claims of gender discrimination. Wanker wasn’t buying that argument. In her order she says the contract, far from easing discrimination, created it.

The town offered other arguments to stave off the injunction, including that since the contracts were not voted upon, there was no harm created from which the county could legally seek relief. Wanker disagreed.

“One cannot seriously argue that Nye County will not be irreparably harmed if it is saddled with 5 perpetually renewable employment contracts,” she wrote in her order.

District Attorney Brian Kunzi, who argued for the injunction on behalf of the county commissioners, alluded during the hearing that he was moving forward with additional actions based on what he was learning about the town’s employment agreements. Sources tell the Pahrump Valley Times that the county may attempt to void all town contracts leading up to the takeover of town governance in January.

Sources have also repeatedly told the newspaper that the town takeover will likely not result in any immediate layoffs of town staffers, though Holecheck’s future is now less certain. What concerned county officials most about the proposals was that the contracts could have prevented the county from shuffling department heads into new jobs once the takeover occurs. In fact, the only immediate change, sources say, will be that the town board will vanish and the county commission will take over its duties.

Kunzi was not available for comment Thursday. Holecheck said she had not seen the order and so was not prepared to comment.

Bret Meich, the town’s contract legal counsel, was on vacation and unaware of the order’s contents and so declined to comment as well.

During the hearing last week, Meich said the town wanted to keep its legal options open, alluding to the possibility the town may take its case to a higher court for review.

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