‘A ship without a captain.’ Grimes unloads on the Kentucky State Board of Elections.
The Bevin Administration is ending a 22-year-policy of providing members of the part-time board that oversees Kentucky’s elections with pension and health benefits, saying the members don’t work enough hours to justify the expensive perks.
Members of the Kentucky State Board of Elections learned of the decision to chop their benefits at their April meeting, which was only their second gathering since November 2018.
Under state law, government officials must consistently work more than 100 hours a month to be eligible for pension and health benefits. “All members were asked to certify this requirement or they would be reclassified appropriately,” said Katherine North, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet.
The change is another pothole in what has been a bumpy road for the board since Jared Dearing, the board’s executive director, sent a nine page letter in August detailing his concerns that Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes was creating a hostile work environment and overstepping her authority over the board. Grimes was then chairwoman of the board.
The letter sparked an extended power struggle between Dearing and Grimes, eventually resulting in legislation approved earlier this year that added two former county clerks to the board and made Grimes and Dearing non-voting (for the most part) members. When setting salaries for the two new board members, the Personnel Cabinet examined why members of a board that typically meets once a month were eligible to enroll in the state’s health plan and receive lifetime pension benefits.
Traditionally, the secretary of state has set the salary range and recommends benefits for incoming members of the State Board of Elections. “I was told that was the way it was always done and not to question it,” said former Secretary of State Trey Grayson. The law approved earlier this year, though, limited the secretary of state’s authority over the board and eliminated the hands-off approach the Personnel Cabinet has taken with salaries set by an elected constitutional officer.
The State Board of Elections immediately decided to ask the Personnel Cabinet to reconsider its decision, enlisting Dearing to draft a letter to the Personnel Cabinet justifying their benefits. In it, Dearing argued that members “work what is essentially an on call schedule,” which he said means they make themselves available to work more than the 100-hour-a-month minimum required to receive benefits.
“While the time any individual board member works may vary, the time they must be actively available far exceeds the one hundred hour minimum,” Dearing wrote in the letter, dated May 14. “This means board members must have the flexibility to take calls and answer emails throughout the week and weekend, as well as, during evening hours.”
It is unclear why the State Board of Elections began receiving retirement benefits in 1987. Board members have received a salary since its inception in 1968 — $25 a meeting at first — but it is one of only six out of more than 100 state boards and commissions that get both a salary and benefits. The current salaries of board members range from $12,600 a year to $13,496 a year.
The other state boards that offer benefits — the Parole Board, Workers’ Compensation Board, Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, Kentucky Claims Commission and Public Service Commission — have salaries that range from amounts similar to the elections board to $134,000 a year (a member of the Public Service Commission).
Elections board member George Russell, who once served as executive director of the board, drew comparisons to the Workers’ Compensation Board and the Kentucky Claims Commission at the April meeting. Members of the Worker’s Compensation Board, a three-member board that works full-time considering workers’ compensation claims, make $133,000 a year and members of the claims commission, a three-member board that considers damage claims against the state, tax appeals and compensation claims made by crime victims, make between $14,000 and $18,900.
“When this was being set up, we were being compared to the magistrates,” Russell said, referencing elected members of county fiscal courts. “Some magistrates work five hours a month, some magistrates work 150-200 hours a month and there’s no consistency.”
The Herald-Leader reported in 2011 that hundreds of county magistrates participate in a state-run retirement program despite questions about whether they work enough to qualify for the benefit.
As a long-time state employee, Russell is one of the members who stands to benefit most from his time on the State Board of Elections. Because Russell was appointed to the board before September 1, 2008, he’s eligible to “double dip,” or enhance his pension benefits by working in a second state job after he retired.
Other than state lawmakers, the amount any individual receives in state pension benefits is private under Kentucky law.
In an email to Dearing obtained by the Herald-Leader under the Kentucky Open Records Act, Russell suggested that Dearing remove a sentence from a draft letter to the Personnel Cabinet “that admits the statement that we work under a 100 hours per month.”
“This is a good month for example we will probably have two board meetings, I will attend a training program, I visited my political party to discuss selling data, have spent hours and hours reading correspondence from staff in addition to reading law suites involving the State Board numerous times to understand the implications,” Russell said in the email. “Also before each meeting, members spend time in preparation.”
Russell, who retired as executive director of the elections board in 1999 and was appointed to the board in 2008, was the only member who agreed to speak with the Herald-Leader about their benefits. He said the job requires a lot of reading and that members often attend conferences to stay current on elections issues.
“I think the board of elections is a most important board,” Russell said. “Whether it should or should not be (getting benefits), I’m not getting into that debate. I just know it’s been done historically.”
The other board member who stands to benefit most from adding years of service to his state pension is former Attorney General Ben Chandler. He was vocal about his desire to keep the board’s benefits in emails to Dearing obtained through an open records request. It was Chandler who suggested the line of argument that board members are always on-call.
“Also, it should be pointed out that these are essentially salaried positions and on-call at all times,” Chandler said in an email. “We are NOT hourly employees who work less than 100 hours. We are always on call. That is an important distinction. We don’t do time sheets. In theory, it’s similar to constitutional officers who also don’t do time sheets. The Attorney General, for instance, is on call 24/7. He gets paid the same no matter how many hours he works.”
The on-call argument didn’t work. Unless board members can prove they work 100 hours a month, they will lose their benefits package in January, said North, the Personnel Cabinet spokeswoman.