After a failed mediation session, a dispute over salary raises between the Howard County Council and Judge William Menges is headed to a special judge.
Howard County Attorney Alan Wilson confirmed Wednesday “no resolution was reached” during mediation earlier this month but said he could provide no other details about the confidential process.
The next step in the disagreement, which could lead to an expensive legal bill for Howard County taxpayers, is for the Indiana Supreme Court to appoint a special judge to preside over the case.
The county has to pay the legal bills for both sides using taxpayer dollars, acknowledged Wilson. He said he cannot yet predict the total cost.
“I would rather have been able to come to an agreement and end the process there. It just wasn’t in the cards, I guess,” said Howard County Council President Jim Papacek.
Representing the council alongside Wilson is Kokomo attorney Thomas J. Trauring, according to court records. Representing Menges’ court is Anthony W. Overholt, an attorney with Indianapolis-based Frost Brown Todd LLC.
The Indiana Supreme Court in March ordered the two sides “in the interest of judicial economy” to mediate the dispute, which hinges on a pursuit by Menges for more than $17,000 in employee raises.
But the county and Menges, who presides over Howard Superior Court 1, now await the state Supreme Court’s appointment of a special judge.
The appointment will be given to an attorney “who is not a current or former regular judge and who does not reside or regularly practice law in Howard County or any contiguous county,” said Wilson.
The special judge will then set the case for trial.
How did they get here?
The controversy reached a head on Feb. 27 when Menges filed an “order for mandate of funds” that set into motion a court battle about whether four of his employees deserve raises that Menges believes would more equitably compensate the workers.
Howard Superior Court 1 Judge William Menges and Howard County Council members have been ord…
One day earlier, on Feb. 26, a request from Menges for $13,741 in raises was denied by the council. Menges bumped that total to $17,730 in his order.
The February denial, which happened without a vote after council members refused to even second a motion on the potential raises, was not the first time council members have refused Superior Court 1 raises.
The council previously denied a raise request in February 2018 during a period when concerns from Menges about his court’s workload helped spark a revamping of the Howard County court system.
Council members have continuously cited the county’s attrition program, which rewards remaining employees in departments that do not replace exiting workers, and Menges’ lack of participation in the program as the reason for their denials.
They say the reason other courthouse employees are paid more than Menges’ workers is because they have taken on additional work through the attrition program.
However, Menges is now mandating a bump for his court reporter of $4,397, which would bring the salary to $42,789. In conjunction, he has listed a need of $13,333 for his three assistant court reporters, which would bring their salaries to $40,456 each.
The salaries he has requested would put his employees on equal footing with Superior Court 3 employees.
Menges wrote in his order that the raises “will not have an adverse effect on a specific fiscal or other interest of Howard County” and are “reasonable and necessary in order to carry out the functions of the court.”
Most notably, Menges said that without the additional funds his court “is facing a clear and present danger of not being able to perform its functions and duties.”
How does mediation work?
Wilson noted that mediation generally does not involve presenting evidence or debate between the two sides.
Instead, mediations “normally involve the parties and their attorney meeting together so the mediator can discuss the mediation process, and ask any questions that will help the mediator understand the facts of the case,” he said.
Each side will then retreat to separate rooms, and the mediator, who is neutral and cannot make any decisions or require the dueling sides to reach any agreements, goes back and forth with the hope of brokering a compromise.
Meditating Howard County’s case was Indianapolis attorney James Ward Riley, Jr.
“The mediation lasts until the parties reach a compromise, or until it becomes clear that no compromise will be reached,” noted Wilson.
“The mediator then reports to the court that either the parties reached an agreement or they did not. The mediator is not permitted to give any further details.”
Menges could not be reached for comment for this story.