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Pawnee Co. tables action to suspend clerk’s salary
Hoisington City 4-25-23
Hoisington City Council members discuss vacancies on the council at Monday’s meeting.

LARNED – After a full day of meetings, the Pawnee County Commission Monday afternoon tabled action to suspend or reduce County Clerk/Election Officer Ruth Searight’s salary. This came a week after commissioners voted on Oct. 5 to issue a contingent suspension of pay unless Searight attended Monday’s meeting. 

Searight, who was absent from the Oct. 5 meeting, was asked to appear before the board Monday to address commissioners’ concerns over the clerk’s performance “in statutory duties and adherence to current budgets.”
Pawnee County Attorney Doug McNett said reducing or suspending compensation for an elected official is a measure of last resort.
“The commissioners are going to give the county clerk an additional week to see if she will communicate with the board as previously requested by commissioners,” he said.
Searight informed commissioners by letter that she would not be in attendance at Monday’s meeting. She has also not responded to several requests from the Great Bend Tribune for comment.
“Obviously, we’re not sure where this will lead us right now,” said District 3 Commissioner Bob Rein Jr. in response to Searight’s absence. “We did have discussion with counsel this morning but due to another meeting we had to cut that short.”
He added that conversations with legal council will continue at a later time. 
Searight appeared before county commissioners during their regular meeting on Sept. 21 to discuss overbudgeting issues with the 2020 Election.
Searight did not address specifics when asked why she outsourced accounting duties to an outside firm without consulting with commissioners, or why her to-date expenditures considerably surpassed prior budget years.

An outside accountant
She invited accountant and Larned City Mayor William Nusser to the Sept. 21 meeting, at which time the clerk requested Nusser’s accounting firm, Simmons and Simmons Inc., to assume the responsibility of maintaining the county’s ledger through the end of the year.
At Monday’s meeting, Nusser said that because of negative feedback he has received about the proposed work between Nusser’s firm and the county he “cannot engage in any services for the county going forward.”
Nusser said the negative feedback stemmed from previous media coverage addressing the partnership opportunity between Simmons and Simmons and the county.
“It had nothing to do with how the article was written,” said Nusser. “It was just the feedback we received about the article and the negative perception that as mayor of Larned, I would be soliciting that business from the county.
“That has a negative impact and I won’t put our firm at risk,” Nusser said. He wanted to avoid a perception of impropriety.
“I don’t want this business, but unfortunately it somehow got relayed to the public that I had an agreement with the county clerk and it has not been positive for my firm,” he said.

The upcoming election
When asked about who will be overseeing the November election, McNett said Searight will have the responsibility.
“Ruth Searight will be running the election next month,” McNett said. “She has not indicated otherwise. She ran the primaries and we expect her to do the same in the General Election.”
Another question posed was how staff would be able to be trained to maintain the day-to-day operations when Searight is absent and the potential power struggle that could evolve between the clerk’s office and commissioners.
“It’s a complicated question,” said Rein. “There are also some legal questions that could muddy the waters. I just don’t want to speculate on that right now.” 

What are the options?
In terms of how the county could legally proceed with the county clerk issue, McNett said state law provides two procedures:
• An ouster which would be initiated by the State Attorney General or the County Attorney’s Office, or
• A recall process.
“We’re less than 90 days from the expiration of this particular term,” said McNett. Searight’s term is up at the end of the year and she is not seeking reelection.
“So we need to factor in if this is worth the litigation given the nature of those proceedings,” he said. “It would be better if elected officials communicated with other elected officials.”
McNett added that regardless of what happens with this dilemma, staff will be in place to work the election on November 3.
District 1 Commissioner Deborah Lewis noted Searight has not indicated that she will not be working next month’s election.
“It [the elections] will come off,” Rein said. “It will just be a little messier than usual.”
Rein added that the county continues to run up against statutory challenges. “We will continue to try to provide the best outcome for the citizens of Pawnee County,” he said.
When asked how the county would possibly proceed with withholding or reducing Searight’s salary, Rein said discussions will continue with McNett and counsel provided through the Kansas County Association Multiline Pool (KCAMP).
“Unfortunately we cannot go into detail because we simply did not have time to get all the questions answered through counsel earlier today,” said Rein.
Rein stressed that the board is making every effort to work with the county clerk.
“We as a board wanted to make one more effort to simply receive some communication from the clerk,” Rein said, referring to a letter sent to Searight from McNett.
In that letter, McNett said he was directed by commissioners to submit a list of questions to Searight on topics covering duties of the election officer, the county clerk’s budget and general duties of the clerk’s office.
“To date, the county has not received any answers to those questions presented,” McNett said.