Bonner County commissioners are meeting behind closed doors this week, hoping to settle a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by 10 fired employees.
The county will likely have to pay thousands of dollars to the employees, but that would be cheaper than a lengthy court battle, Commissioner Dale Van Stone said.
“We would like to settle without doing a whole lot of damage to the county coffers, and then everyone can get on with their lives,” he said. “Litigation always costs time and money no matter how it comes out.”
The main lawsuit, for $8.8 million, stems from a decision by Republican commissioners Larry Allen and Bud Mueller. Two days after they took office in January 1997, they voted to abolish the building department, rid the county of building codes and fire building department employees.
The move, commissioners said, would save taxpayers money. But so far the radical decision appears to be costing taxpayers. Fired employees and residents sued the county, saying the department was abolished at an illegal meeting. A judge agreed and the county was ordered to pay more than $13,700 in attorney fees.
A flurry of other lawsuits were filed, three in two weeks after the commissioners closed the building department. The pile of litigation prompted the county’s insurance carrier to consider dropping its coverage. The county ended up paying a higher premium, an extra $240,000, to keep its insurance. Now the county is looking at paying thousands more to settle lawsuits filed by workers who claim they were wrongly fired.
Judge Charles Hosack is heading all-day mediation sessions today and Friday between the county, its insurance company and the employees’ lawyer, Scott Reed.
“All parties agreed it would be beneficial to have a mediator rather than go through a full-blown trial,” Van Stone said. “I don’t know how soon an official decision would be made but we hope some resolution will come from this.”
The lawsuits were filed by Red Reibe, the former road supervisor, and Sid Strauss, the former solid waste supervisor. Eight members of the former Bonner County planning and building department are also suing the county. All were fired by Mueller and Allen.
Those in the building department said Mueller and Allen had a personal vendetta because they were cited for code violations before being elected. The two commissioners have admitted run-ins with the department. But they said the move to close the building department was a campaign promise, not a vendetta.
The county was forced to hire another building inspector to finish work not yet completed by the county department. The inspector was only supposed to stay on six months. He is still working for the county.
Van Stone was the only commissioner who opposed the building department closure and firings. He said there was no public input or discussion. If there had been, all the lawsuits and confusion could have been avoided, he said.
“If we are going to do these kind of things we at least need to do them right,” Van Stone said before the lawsuits were filed.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE LAWSUIT The $8.8 million suit stems from a decision by commissioners Larry Allen and Bud Mueller to abolish the building department two days after taking office.