Curry County Commissioner Court Boice won his case in court Tuesday — and the county is out almost $9,000 in attorney fees and the money it failed to recoup from Boice when he overspent the department’s travel budget.
Special Circuit Court Judge Andrew Combs of Coos County decided in Boice’s favor in regards to a citation the county issued against Boice for overspending travel funds to attend an Association of Oregon Counties (AOC) conference earlier this month. The judge also ruled against the county on a small claims case in which the county attempted to recoup $5,283 from Boice for other travel expenses dating back to last summer.
The latest invoice from the Portland attorney who advised County Administrator Clark Schroeder how to present the case was for $3,300. He said that makes up the bulk of that firm’s fees.
Much of $5,283 was spent during the Chetco Bar Fire in 2017, according to Boice, who said he traveled in a county vehicle almost every day over a 90-day period to coordinate volunteers, attend fire briefings and other related work.
But this year, he’s also spent the entire county commissioners budget of $4,500 attending meetings in various cities — most recently the AOC meeting in mid-November. He says he has also spent thousands of dollars of his own money to travel and has never asked to be reimbursed.
The Curry County Board of County Commissioners (BOC) adopted a travel policy in August 2017 that limits each commissioner to $1,500 in travel expenses, forbids them from using a county vehicle for in-county use and requires them to obtain permission from the board to travel out of county with a county vehicle as well as provide three cost estimates for more expensive travelling.
It also says that any unauthorized expenses are to be borne by the person who incurred them.
They cited Boice five days later, but were advised they couldn’t bring it to court because the citation was based on a policy and not backed by an ordinance.
Boice has maintained since the beginning — and noted so in his testimony Tuesday — that it is his job to travel to meet with other officials about issues of local and regional concern.
“It’s a question of right and wrong,” Boice said. “The BOC appointed me to the AOC as their voting delegate. The Oxford definition of ‘delegate’ is in part, ‘an elected representative sent to conferences.’”
He said when the board appointed him as that representative, they had to have known the duties involved — including travel requirements.
“By definition, they authorized all my travel,” he said. “I was carrying out the duties given to me by the BOC. And I’m carrying the load for all three commissioners.”
Combs asked if the other commissioners traveled to panels, boards, commission meetings at all, to which Boice said, “very little inside the county and almost none outside.”
The two other commissioners, Tom Huxley and Sue Gold, ceded their share of the travel budget to Boice months ago.
Combs also noted that when Boice did the bulk of his traveling last fiscal year, he was operating under a county travel policy that wasn’t even enforceable according to the county’s own attorney. It was only given teeth when the commissioners voted to enact a travel ordinance — as an emergency act — on Sept. 5, 2017.
The citation wasn’t issued until June of this year because the issue could not be brought to court under a county policy, so the travel policy needed to be changed into an ordinance, Schroeder said.
Schroeder noted that Boice reported having driven about 1,750 miles after the passage of the ordinance to at least six other out-of-county cities — North Bend, Salem, Lincoln City and Ashland among them — without board approval.
“Here’s what bothers me about this case,” Combs said. “I’ve worked in various levels of politics — local, state, federal — as a staffer, and rarely do people go to the level of filing a citation. The ordinance doesn’t fit the scenario. The board was displeased (about expenses) so it passed an ordinance to enforce the policy. But the problems that occurred were (conducted) prior to the ordinance being enacted.”
He also said it was punitive for the county to pursue a citation for travel that took place five days after the emergency ordinance was enacted, but Schroeder said there were seven instances in which the policy was violated and he only chose the one to bring to court.
Combs said the travel policy indicates county officials are encouraged to use a county vehicle before using a private vehicle when traveling out of the county.
Schroeder noted that Interim Administrator John Hitt warned the BOC the budget was being exceeded in February, and that any future expenditures from the office would fall to those who chose to travel for county commissioner business.
Combs said, “The issue, the fact that the county commissioners appointed Mr. Boice as their representative to the AOC and then says — encourages under its own policy … to use a county car if possible — please use our car — and then issues him a citation; it doesn’t work for me.
“How can you have a case in which the county counsel says (a policy) is not enforceable and you need a new policy and then you sue somebody based on that policy?” Combs added. “How’s that work?”
The county lost its case to recoup $5,284 Boice over spent in travel expenses, as well, with Combs saying the issue is political, not criminal.
Some discussion swirled around overspending of any county budget and how that is recouped by supplemental budgets to balance the budget at fiscal year’s end. Combs expressed curiosity that it didn’t work in this case.
Schroeder said supplemental budgets are available to make up for such shortages, as the county budget is malleable. Last month, he proposed a $5,000 supplemental budget for the commissioner’s travel budget to get them through the rest of the fiscal year — it ends June 30, 2019 — but the BOC rejected it.
“So the county clerk goes to an extra meeting and all of a sudden you sue the county clerk?” Combs asked Schroeder.
“In the sheriff’s office, if a guy has a heart attack and it costs $150,000 — ” Schroeder started.
“Do you sue the sheriff?” Combs asked.
Combs compared Schroeder and the county board of commissioners to a business in which Schroeder is the president and they are the board of directors.
“What did the county do once they knew Mr. Boice had spent the money — stop using county cars?” Combs said. “At what point does the county have to take the responsibility to stop this overage?
“You see the water running, and you turn the water off,” Combs said. “It’s confusing to me why you have someone overspending the money and at the same time, you don’t turn the water off. Turn the water off. Turn the water off.”
He agreed with Schroeder that county-owned vehicles are really owned by the taxpayers.
“At the end of the day, it’s not ours,” Combs said. “My chambers are not really my office. When I was in private practice, if I wanted to set the chair on fire, I could set the chair on fire. We’re merely holding the fort until the next person comes along. All these things belong to the people; they’re not ours.”
Combs also suggested the county keep better track of its assets — the vehicles — and require everyone to use the documentation regarding vehicle use.
“You’re running a good-sized organization,” Combs said. “Bookkeeping and keeping track of those things is important.
“You have to be in charge of the keys. You have to be consistent. Then no one can use the keys unless they’re supposed to. And, require reimbursements, rather than giving people credit cards to spend on whatever,” Combs said. “Then you’re in control. You, as the county administrator, have the power to approve expenditures after the fact. That’s how you guard the piggy bank.”
Schroeder said he now plans to place all the keys in a lock box and only mete them out when an official has received permission to use a vehicle.
Combs’ suggestions weren’t limited to Schroeder. He advised Boice to comply by the ordinance and fill out the requisite forms when traveling.
“In a democracy, if two commissioners say this is the way we want to go, you still have to follow the other two commissioners, whether or not you like the outcome,” Combs said. “They have two votes, and you have one.”
He also encouraged him to call in or Skype to meetings where that option is available, which Boice said is like trying to teach someone to fish by reading a book.
Boice also prevailed in the small claims case, which Combs said was “even weaker” than the citation.
Other issues brought into that case involved a breach of fiduciary duty — which relates to a concept of loyalty — and “unjust enrichment” by Boice using county funds for travel.
Combs didn’t see it that way, asking, “What benefit does Mr. Boice get out of this? I didn’t hear it. And how is the county not benefited by his work?”
Schroeder, however, insisted that Boice used county money to drive a county car — a public asset — that he wasn’t allowed to use.
Combs said elected officials should be allowed a little more leeway to travel than other county officials — and shouldn’t travel under the fear of being sued.
“You’ve got to mind the store,” Combs said. “You’re like the president of the company and as the president of the company: ‘OK, you have someone using company property, but you’re in charge of the keys.’ If you make a person seek reimbursement, you can say no. You’re making the decisions after the money’s been spent.”
Boice posted in a press release after trial Tuesday he was “deeply saddened that the terrible political posturing” prevented the resolution of the incident at the BOC level.
“I feel vindicated by the decisions and justified in my steadfast advocacy on behalf of the people of Curry County. I always felt that if I could simply be heard on the facts, truth and right would prevail. They did.
“This is not about me,” Boice added. “This is about doing right for Curry County, which has been terribly stagnated with a toxic environment for four years.”