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Has time expired for return of unconstitutional raises?

by Ivan Foley
Landmark editor

The disagreement rages on.
A potential legal battle looms over whether the statute of limitations has expired on the unconstitutional pay raises that were accepted by two Platte County Commissioners back in 1999.

The unconstitutional pay raises were accepted by Michael Short, currently serving out his term after being defeated in the August Republican primary by Tom Pryor, and Diza Eskridge, who was defeated in the 2000 general election by Steve Wegner.

Short and Eskridge accepted the mid-term pay raises following legislation that was later deemed by the Missouri Supreme Court to be unconstitutional. Some officeholders in other counties who took the mid-term raise have repaid the money. Short and Eskridge have declined to do so.

Platte County Auditor Sandra Thomas has been the most outspoken proponent of having the money given back to the county. It would amount to about $19,000 each from Short and Eskridge. Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd recently issued a statement saying he also believes the money needs to be repaid.

Last Friday, the Platte County Commission issued a press release stating it is rejecting Thomas' request that the salary increases be returned.

Short and Eskridge say they hired the Kansas City law firm of White, Goss, Bowers to render an opinion on the related statute. The opinion issued to them, according to the press release, says the statute places a three year limit on any cause of action such as the one requested by the auditor.

Thomas, however, says legal counsel she has obtained has a different opinion.

"Finally Short is now conceding that the pay raise he and Eskridge received was unconstitutional. Now he is merely trying to rely on a legal technicality to try to escape his obligation to the taxpayers of Platte County," Thomas said this week.

According to Thomas, the Missouri Attorney General has issued a legal opinion that says a five year statute of limitations applies to lawsuits over compensation paid to public officials . The Missouri Supreme Court has also said—in a case in Moniteau County—that a five year statute of limitations applies to disputes over compensation of public officials, Thomas points out.

"Short is also wrong about when the statute of limitations begins to run. Until Jan. 1, Short and Eskridge constituted a majority of the county commission. Only the county commission can sue for the repayment of the pay raise. I believe that since Short and Eskridge refused to vote to collect the unconstitutional pay raises from themselves that the statute of limitations does not begin to run before the time that Eskridge left office," Thomas explained this week.

In noting a three-year statute of limitations, Short's legal counsel references a case involving the City of Velda.

"The auditor's motives are clear," Short said. "This is a political issue she and her supporters chose to use in the August primary campaign against me. They waited to raise the issue until such time as it would have the most political impact. It is pure partisan politics at its worst.”

He added: "If Sandra Thomas was really concerned for the best interests of Platte County, as she claims, she would have taken action years ago when the issue first arose," Short said
Thomas, however, can supply copies of emails she sent to commissioners in past years requesting action on the repayment of the unconstitutional raises.

In any event, there seems to be no immediate end to the argument.

Thomas said the advice she received from counsel in regard to the statute of limitations in this matter being five years, not three as suggested by Short and Eskridge, is preliminary. She told The Landmark this week that she is expecting a written opinion on the matter "within a couple of weeks."




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