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Town Board vote on ‘golden parachutes’ for top town staffers halted by court

Nye County commissioners held an emergency meeting at 3 p.m. Monday to authorize District Attorney Brian Kunzi to file a restraining order preventing the Pahrump Town Board from entering into new or revised contracts with top town employees that would continue after the town board is dissolved Jan. 5, 2015.

District Judge Kimberly Wanker authorized a 15-day temporary restraining order late Tuesday.

The two-year contracts, or in some cases only revisions to existing contracts, were to benefit Pahrump’s buildings and grounds manager, fire chief, tourism director, human resources director and town manager.

Among the more questionable proposed amendments include adding nine-month severance packages and continued insurance coverage for nine months for the employees should they be terminated — even if terminated for cause.

Though the contracts were on the town’s agenda for consideration Tuesday evening, Town Manager Susan Holecheck said the town board will probably have to revisit them during another meeting following word of the injunction. The town’s legal counsel, Bret Meich, fell ill and was not available for the meeting, she said.

Holecheck objected to the 11th hour court action and lamented the town and county’s inability to work together.

Kunzi, meanwhile, said he had to call an emergency meeting because he only found out the news Friday when the official town board agenda was posted. There wasn’t time to schedule the action for a regular meeting. The public is generally required to be given 72 hours notice before a commission meeting is held.

Commissioners had to convene around a conference table in a small meeting room because computer hookups with the DA and Commissioner Lorinda Wichman in northern Nye County weren’t working in the regular commissioner’s meeting room.

The Nevada Open Meetings Law allows public bodies to hold an emergency meeting to discuss an unforeseen circumstance that requires immediate action and includes, but is not limited to disasters caused by fire, flood, earthquake or other natural causes; or any impairment of the health and safety of the public. It allows the county to waive normal requirements to post an agenda at least three working days before the meeting.

“We discovered for the first time that the town board is proposing several long-term contracts for town employees that had never been offered before and these are extended way beyond their terms of office, including some lengthy severance packages,” Kunzi said.

County Manager Pam Webster said two are new contracts. Kunzi said the town board was trying to extend contracts that expired in 2012 and add two new employees who didn’t have contracts.

“Obviously it causes a great deal of concern this will have on the town, particularly since it’s exceeding the term of office, which really by now everybody knows will end Jan. 5,” the DA said during the meeting.

Holecheck, meanwhile, was adamant that the items were placed on the agenda to address ongoing disparities between salary and benefits packages for staff members largely based on gender, not as a means to supply golden parachutes — as county officials roundly see it — to town staffers afraid of losing their highly-prized government jobs on Jan. 5.

“When Dave Richards was town manager, three positions currently held by men get nine months of severance pay, they get nine months of insurance premiums that are paid for and so on. On the other hand, you have one woman who has a contract and she gets three weeks of severance pay. I’ve done the research and there’s no other town or city manager in the United States probably that gets three weeks. The standard is six months,” she said.

Consequently, Holecheck said, by not moving forward, the town could be open to legal liability, even be accused of gender discrimination.

“On top of all that, now you have two women who have become department head directors who are exempt and they don’t have contracts. You have two men and three women, but they are not equal and that’s not good. It doesn’t matter that the town is transitioning. I would have done this in any event, because you cannot have three men getting gravy over here, and three women who are not. This disparity could present legal issues and be problematic for the town. There’s too much of a potential for somebody to cry foul,” she said.

Ironically, when pressed, the town manager agreed that a nine-month severance package was probably a bit excessive for anyone in the town’s employ.

“If you fire someone without good cause, they should be entitled to a bit of time to find another job. Would I give nine months severance? No, because I do think nine months is too long. The men have nine, so in fairness, I should have nine as well. If everyone is playing fair, you’d never have to pay severance so it wouldn’t matter if it is three months, six months or 12 months. In 2006, they offered Dave Richards 12 months of severance and it failed,” she said.

Commissioners requested a ballot question asking voters to dissolve the Pahrump Town Board after the end of this year. Voters narrowly agreed to ditch the town board form of government during the November 2012 vote. The town then engaged in a long and costly court battle to overturn the vote. The Nevada Supreme Court earlier this year ruled against the town and allowed the vote to stand.

Now, it would appear that town and county are headed into another courtroom faceoff. Wanker set a hearing date for Aug. 18, 10 a.m. at her Pahrump court.

It won’t be pretty if the language in Kunzi’s motion for injunctive relief is any clue.

The Pahrump Valley Times obtained a copy of the motion late Tuesday.

“Like it or not the town board must come to grips with the fact it has been rejected and the voters wish to move into a new era of government,” Kunzi writes in the motion, adding later that, “It is also no accident the new contracts are a stark departure from past practices of the town board by the insertion of poisonous golden parachutes. Trying to protect senior staff as the board is being ushered out of office is a high price (for taxpayers) to pay.

“The voters deserve a better display of leadership.”

Tuesday’s town board meeting was set to take place after press time. Look for any results or additional related developments from the meeting in Friday’s PVT.

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