CLAY COUNTY — Legal representation for Presiding County Commissioner Jerry Nolte in the sheriff’s lawsuit against the commission remains up in the air after a motion to approve a separate contract for the commissioner’s legal counsel failed due to Nolte and Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway abstaining from the vote to approve Monday, May 20.
Ridgeway said she would vote for Nolte’s counsel contract, which he is entitled to as a commissioner, but only if Nolte did not abstain from a vote on the matter.
“You have been very, very public about your concern about legal fees. It is my opinion that you have created a scenario where our attorneys have a conflict because of your very public statements. The will of the majority of this body is that the taxpayers and budget of this county should be defended. I personally feel that you, as presiding commissioner, have an obligation to protect and defend this county and the taxpayers when we are sued. You made a decision not to, which you have been very, very public about, and created a conflict for our attorney,” she said.
The two commissioners argued over the matter for roughly 15 minutes, with Nolte repeatedly banging his gavel on the dais saying Ridgeway was out of order.
In her arguments for Nolte needing to vote on the contract, Ridgeway said Nolte is using the matter to grandstand for the public while simultaneously not taking action despite a representative from the law firm Husch Blackwell telling him there is no reason he could not vote to approve the contract. Nolte, she said, is named in the suit as a member of the commission and not a private citizen, so he should vote.
“Do you want a political football or do you want legal representation?” she asked Nolte.
Nolte said he was public about his support of Sheriff Paul Vescovo and his desire to provide more funding for the sheriff’s office in the budget but has not commented on the litigation since the filing of the lawsuit, adding his conscience and legal counsel suggested he abstain from a vote on the approval of his separate legal counsel contract.
“That would be an interesting thing for me to do to solicit counsel and then one of the first acts was to disregard counsel,” he said.
Under public comment on the issue, Assessor Cathy Rinehart told Nolte she agreed with Ridgeway and that Nolte would be best served by voting to approve the contract.
“You don’t want to be out on a limb by yourself,” she said.
The need for Nolte to have separate legal counsel from the rest of the commission became a topic of discussion earlier in the month when the commission took up the matter at its May 13 meeting. At that meeting, a motion to approve a contract with Kuhlman Reddoch and Sullivan failed after all three commissioners abstained from the vote.
Nolte said he was advised by County Counselor Lowell Pearson of Husch Blackwell that Pearson, due to a conflict of interest, could not represent Nolte in the sheriff’s suit that named the county and each of the three commissioners as defendants.
As a result, Nolte sought out legal firm Kuhlman Reddoch and Sullivan. Under the proposed contract, the county would pay $300 per hour for attorney time and be responsible for all other reasonable expenses such as copying and court costs, and travel expenses.
Nolte said Powell told him that the conflict stemmed from Nolte’s previous public comments and board actions in support of the sheriff.
When asked about the nature of the conflict, Pearson told the Courier-Tribune he was not authorized to speak to the press on behalf of the county.
“The commission and each individual commissioner were named separately by Sheriff Paul Vescovo in the lawsuit alleging budget cuts,” said Assistant County Administrator for Public Services Nicole Brown in a statement. “Each party named by the sheriff in the lawsuit does not share the same position on the matter at hand. Therefore, no competent attorney would be able to advocate for parties of opposing positions on a legal matter. It is an undisputed matter of compliance with Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys.”