Commissioners draw ire of JP
Stillwater County Justice of the Peace Lee Cornell says the county commissioners have created an adversarial relationship through their alleged total lack of communication over concerns they never voiced to him.
In a letter dated April 23 to the commissioners, Cornell details his discovery that the commissioners sought the advice of the Montana Association of Counties (MACo) regarding Cornell working as both a justice of the peace and a Columbus City Court judge on the same day.
Cornell was elected justice of the peace and hired by Columbus to be the city court judge, just as the previous justice of the peace had served in each capacity for more than two decades. However, Cornell holds city court proceedings from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. every Tuesday, as opposed to the previous practice of holding city court after 5 p.m.
There are three main issues raised in Cornell’s letter -- the question of whether or not he can work as both justice of the peace and Columbus City Court during the day, why the commissioners did not ask him directly about the matter and why did they go to MACo instead of the Stillwater County Attorney with their legal question.
Commissioners did not respond to questions regarding this matter.
Working as Justice and City Court Judge
According to an email dated April 16 and sent to MACo by Stillwater County Finance and Human Resource Specialist Joe Morse on behalf of the commissioners, the concern centered on whether or not Cornell was being paid by both the town and county during those Tuesday city court sessions.
A MACo attorney responded that it might possibly be a problem that needs addressed.
However, Cornell explains in his letter that the MACo attorney was not given all of the information, which is that while the justice court hours are set from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., his own hours as the justice of the peace are 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., which as an elected official, he is allowed to set, according to his letter.
Cornell cites a 1989 Attorney General opinion that states county commissioners set the office hours of a justice court but that a justice of the peace is not legally required to be in the office during those hours “thus, a justice of the peace is not precluded from acting as a city judge during the hours of the justice court,” according to the AG opinion written by Marc Racicot.
Regarding the issue of getting paid by both the county and city for work during business hours, Cornell cited a 2009 AG’s “letter of advice” which stated it is permissible, according to Cornell’s letter.
In a letter dated May 4 from Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde, she also offers legal backing, pointing out that Cornell’s hours do not over-lap. Rohde also points out that the MACo attorney was not given all the information needed before responding back to the commissioners.
Rohde also points out the county signed an agreement with the town of Columbus under which the two entities share Cornell and also share the costs of training, mileage and substitute judges.
Lines of communication
Cornell’s letter begins by referring to an “impromptu meeting” he and the three commissioners had on April 20 that “seemed to center on several issues; only one of which was talked about in the email to MACo which was sent on April 16,” Cornell wrote.
One issue that came up in that meeting was how often Cornell left the courthouse and walked down the street to city hall.
“At no time has any commissioner ever asked me why, or how often, I have to utilize the city courtroom for county business. It was clear by your line of questioning that you only made the assumption that I was traveling to city hall in order to handle City Court cases. It’s unfortunate that at no time did anyone from your office have the professional character, or common courtesy, to simply ask me about this when you obviously observed me walking by your office,” Cornell wrote in his letter.
Cornell then went on to explain that he often uses city hall for county cases due to the fact that city hall has an elevator and has been “gracious enough” to allow the county to use its facility.
Cornell also wrote that the commissioner did not taking their questions to Rohde, writing “Instead of talking to the attorney that represents the people of this county you decided to waste county resources and produce a public paper trail just to pose a question that could have been handled locally.”
Cornell closed his letter by expressing that because of the way the commissioners handled this issue, he is left with one conclusion.
“I can only conclude by the way in which this meeting was handled, and the way I was addressed during this meeting, that you (for reasons that escape me) want to have an adversarial relationship with me.”
This week, Cornell said upon receiving his letter, Commissioner Maureen Davey apologized for the way it was handled and assured him it was not the commission’s desire to have a bad relationship with him.
However, Cornell said he learned that within days of that apology, the commissioners once again contacted MACo about the same issue.
County attorney clears clouded issue
With a single letter, Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde has seemingly solved the county commissioner’s concerns about Justice of the Peace Lee Cornell working for both the county and town of Columbus.
Once Rohde was put in the loop by MACo attorney Brian Hopkins, she was able to determine that Cornell was well within the law in serving as both justice and city court judge by the manner in which he has structured his work days so that he is not being paid by both entities for the same hours.
Because Cornell did change city court from the evening to afternoon, Rohde said she would write an amendment to the interlocal agreement the county and town had signed that specifies this change, according to a letter dated May 4 to the commissioners.
She also notes the change in city court hours has been for the better.
“As the chief law enforcement officer in this county, I can say without hesitation that both JP Court and City Court are operating smoothly and more efficiently. Justice Cornell is fulfilling every duty and function of his elected and appointed offices,” Rohde wrote.
Hopkins and the commissioners have expressed satisfaction with this proposed plan to settle the issue, said Rohde.