A scheduled Ellis County budget session on Thursday morning erupted into intense verbal sparring that ended when County Commissioner Butch Schlyer asked Sheriff Ed Harbin to escort County Treasurer Lisa Schlegel from the meeting.
Schlyer’s request came after he asked Schlegel why her proposed 2021 budget didn’t make the commission’s May 1 deadline, and after he told Schlegel he was going to eliminate a staff position from her budget that he didn’t think she needs.
Those rebukes led to intermittent rebuttals from Schlegel, then each of them began talking over one another, with accusations from Schlegel that the commissioners were guilty of ignorance and stupidity about the Treasury, and Schlyer telling her to shut up.
"Sheriff Harbin, come up here a minute," Schlyer then said a few minutes into the exchange. "Please escort Lisa out, I’m tired of listening to this. We’ll do her budget without her."
"Are you kidding me, based on what?" Schlegel retorted, standing at the podium and facing the three county commissioners sitting at their horseshoe. As Harbin came up from the audience, Schlegel said "You’re going to escort me out?"
"Because you’re obnoxious," Schlyer responded.
"No, you are disrespectful, and let the record state that you told me to shut up," Schlegel said as she gathered her papers.
"Don’t touch me," she said to Harbin.
"Nobody’s touching you," Harbin replied, accompanying her from the podium, followed by Undersheriff Scott Braun.
"$515,000 gentlemen, that’s what it’s going to cost to run the Treasury, whether you approve it or not," Schlegel hollered over her shoulder as she was ushered to the back of the room.
As she directed other comments at Schlyer, one officer cautioned her, "If you come back here you’ll be arrested for disorderedly conduct, now move on."
Schlegel’s appearance at the public meeting came midway through the morning session, which started at 8 a.m. in the commission chambers of the Ellis County Administrative Building, 718 Main.
Ellis County department heads and elected officials were each taking their turn Thursday to review with commissioners their proposed 2021 budgets.
The county’s official video of the meeting is on Youtube at https://bit.ly/2As0zOY, with Schlegel’s presentation at 2:08:11.
The commissioners have asked that each official or department head cut their proposed 2021 budget by 1% from 2020 budgets. The commissioners approve the county’s finalized 2021 budgets in August.
Thursday’s flare-up was the latest in nearly two years of simmering conflict between the commissioners and Schlegel, who is in her first term as Treasurer. Their public disagreements have run the gamut from irritation with Schlegel shutting off video cameras in the Treasury without commission permission, to Schlegel not disclosing the purpose of minor purchases on the county credit card, to Schlegel erecting a cubicle unannounced in the Treasury offices, and most recently for announcing Treasury business would be done by appointment for COVID-19 without consulting first with the commission.
Taking her place on Thursday at the podium, Schlegel’s presentation quickly turned acrimonious when she declined to give a more detailed answer to one of Schlyer’s budget questions. He then turned to questions about the Treasury’s newest employee.
"You just recently hired new personnel," he said, "You went for six months without replacing that position."
"That’s incorrect," Schlegel replied.
"No it’s not, you went from September through February," Schlyer began again.
"That is incorrect," Schlegel repeated.
Schlyer continued, "Earlier in the year," but Schlegel spoke up with, "I’m not going to let that stand."
Speaking over Schlegel, Schlyer began again, "Earlier in the year," he said, then repeated, "Earlier in the year, we did ask …"
"Sir, it was four months," Schlegel interrupted.
"Earlier in the year, we did ask that department heads and elected officials discuss personnel issues with us," said Schlyer as Schlegel stood quiet. "Undersheriff Braun discussed jailer positions. Health Services Director [Jason] Kennedy discussed positions. Public Works Director [Bill] Ring discussed positions. You decided not to."
"No I didn’t," Schlegel replied. "You never asked me about the positions."
"It wasn’t up to us to ask," Schlyer said. "I didn’t know you was hiring."
"You clearly were watching," she said, "Why are you asking now?"
"Because I don’t believe you needed the position," he said.
She interrupted, "How would you know, Butch?"
"And I’m going to request the board that we remove it," Schlyer said, talking over Schlegel, who was speaking forcefully into the microphone at the podium.
"You have no bearing to make a statement that my office does not need that staff," Schlegel said. "That’s an ignorant statement."
"You’re being rude and disrespectful," Schlyer said.
"No, you’re lying and you’re misrepresenting the facts, and I’m standing up for myself, that’s not rude and disrespectful," she said. "It’s threatening coming from a young woman to you. I can see that."
"I’m not threatened by any woman," he said.
"Well sure you are, when you lie, misrepresent, call names, yell and bully, that is disrespectful," she said. "And that comes from being threatened."
Schlyer jumped in, "You keep interrupting me so I’d appreciate it if you’d just shut up for a minute."
As the comments spiraled further into heated discussion, with each of them talking over each other, Schlyer continued.
"I don’t believe you needed it because you went for a long time without it," he said. "You went through tax season without it."
"If you understood how the Treasury functioned you would understand that no Treasurer is going to hire and train a new person in tax season," Schlegel replied.
In the course of the exchange, Schlegel pointed out that her proposed 2021 budget is $50,000 less than when she took office.
She faces re-election in the general election this November, with whoever is elected taking office in October 2021.
The Treasurer’s Office has eight full-time employees, including Schlegel, and a three-quarter position budgeted for special motor vehicles, according to Interim County Administrator Darin Myers.
With Schlegel gone, Commissioner Dustin Roths indicated a predicament.
"This was our big fear when we discussed this in our open meeting. We didn’t want people hired that may not be budgeted for the next year," Roths said. "What Ms. Schlegel did to that employee is not fair, and who she decides to let go of next year is not fair because she didn’t come to us and discuss the employee and personnel ahead of her hiring again."
The three commissioners then went over the Treasury budget line-item by line-item, looking at advertising, subsistence, travel, overtime, postage, printing and binding, employee incentives and capital outlay.
Video cameras at issue
As part of that, they asked Information Technology Director Mike Leiker about existing video cameras in the Treasury offices.
Leiker said that more than a year ago the Treasury was experiencing some problems with the 20 cameras that make up its five-year-old video system. Schlegel removed the recording equipment from IT’s server, and although the cameras are still cabled and live, Leiker said, they don’t currently record.
For about $3,000 in licensing fees the recording could be resumed, he said, with cameras that view each work station in the Treasurer’s Office.
"Hopefully the bad guys aren’t watching right now," Leiker said.
Treasurer has discretion
During a wide-ranging discussion about commission authority over the Treasurer, Roths asked the county’s contracted legal advisor, Bill Jeter, the commission’s options, a topic discussed before in connection with Schlegel.
"County Counselor, this is our building correct, but we’re dealing with another elected official," Roths said. "I personally, as an elected official, would like to be recording things wherever we have cameras, at least for a period of time before we destroy tape for the security of the taxpayers, but what are we able to do?"
"There isn’t any clarity in the law, what you can and can’t do. You’re in a grey area," Jeter said. "It is your building. You own the equipment, and you’re required by law to provide adequate facilities for all the departments, including elected officials, to operate their department. But you don’t have the right to control how they operate their department, other than you set their budget."
The issue has come up before, Jeter said.
"I can’t give you any indicator of where that might land if that issue was actually litigated," he said.
"Maybe it should be litigated," Roths commented. "If Treasurer Schlegel would like to have a problem with us recording things in the Treasury, that might have to be something that we have to take up as litigation, because I believe we should be recording in the Treasury. Whether or not she wants access to those records, I believe in our building we should be recording transactions of money, and for the safety of the Treasury, and for the safety of her employees. And if the Treasurer thinks otherwise, I think this is something the courts should weigh in on."
The only working cameras in the administrative building are two outside the IT office, three in the commission chambers area, one each at the east and the west entrances to the building, and one at the drop box on the south side of the building.
Jeter suggested cameras could be placed in the lobby, which would capture recordings of over-the-counter transactions in the Treasurer’s Department.
"That would be in the province of the county commission," he said.
Schlyer asked Jeter a bit later, referencing building supervisor Greg Gerber, "Couldn’t we direct Mr. Gerber not to make any modifications to any of the space upstairs occupied by the Treasurer, unless he first gets it approved by the board?"
If the Treasurer has money in her budget to make improvements in her office, that’s at her discretion, Jeter said.
"You do not have the right to oversee what she is doing," Jeter said, "Unless she was doing some structural changes."
"Our only control is in her capital improvement," Roths said, "and I think we need to look at that very closely, and line-item that to nothing. Because I don’t want things changed in our building in a potential lame-duck session."