By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Following recommendations made by the Office of the State Auditor (OSA) in a July 13 letter, the Morrison County Board is reviewing per diem and reimbursement policies.
Morrison County Commissioner Don Meyer and commissioners in Waseca and Steele counties were investigated regarding their expense report claims for per diem payments from more than one agency for the same meetings, for more than one agency for meetings on the same day and for travel days prior to a distant meeting.
Morrison County Attorney Brian Middendorf referred the investigation to Sherburne County Attorney Kathleen Heaney, who declined to pursue criminal charges against Meyer.
Heaney’s letter dated Sept. 11, stated that Morrison County’s current per diem policy was either not clear or did not address some of the issues in question.
Taking the OSA advice to heart, the county is now addressing the deficiencies in the current per diem policy.
Attorney Scott Anderson of Ratwik, Roszak and Maloney, P.A. in Minneapolis was retained to provide Morrison County with direction.
Anderson conducted extensive research into per diem law and issued his recommendations to the County Board in letters and memorandum, Sept. 26 and 27.
Anderson also brought to light two letters written by former Morrison County Attorney Conrad Freeberg in 1994 and 1995, when current County Commissioners Tom Wenzel and Meyer were already in office.
The letters offer strong advice to the commissioners regarding per diem payments. Although the information was never used to formulate written county policies, it has been used by Commissioner Wenzel in the ensuing years. “I have always used this as my guideline of how to claim per diems,” he said.
Freeberg advised that commissioners can only collect one per diem per day, no matter how many meetings are attended on that day. It was his opinion that per diems only be received for regular board meetings, but not meetings such as Board of Auditors, Board of Equalization or the Canvassing Board — boards that either do not have the authority to make per diem payments or their authority specifically excludes per diem payments to county commissioners.
It was Freeberg’s recommendation that since the Regional Development Board (Region 5) has independent authority to pay per diems, a commissioner can receive a per diem for a Region 5 meeting and other Morrison County meetings on the same day.
He also reminded commissioners that per diems cannot be collected for meetings attended for personal or political reasons.
Commissioners are weighing the possibility of eliminating per diem payments altogether. To do this, a one-time salary increase would be effected to compensate for the lack of per diems.
County Administrator Deb Gruber will be providing figures for comparison in considering the action. “I will take an average of the per diems paid over a period of time,” she said.
A second point the Board will consider is whether to accept an authorized second per diem from a second agency meeting on the same day, but be required to pass on that money to the county to offset commissioner salaries.
The County Board must also consider whether to direct Commissioner Meyer to repay the extra per diem payments he accepted.
Meyer received multiple per diem payments for meetings on the same day two times. There were 34 times that per diems were received for both a county meeting and another meeting on the same day. There were 28 per diems received for travel days. The total for all per diems included is $3,520.
“As your lawyer, I need to tell you that you need to address this in some way,” Anderson told the commissioners.
Although the Sherburne County Attorney declined to press criminal charges, there is still civil liability to consider.
Anderson prepared a selection of resolutions for the Board to choose from when making decisions regarding Meyer reimbursing the taxpayers of Morrison County.
Anderson pointedly informed Commissioner Meyer that due to common law conflict of interest, he should excuse himself from voting on the issue.
Meyer, whose comments throughout the meeting were laced with profanity, said, “I was never given the luxury of having a chance to straighten this out — I was just thrown into the possibility of criminal charges.”
At Tuesday’s County Board meeting, both the per diem policy and the issue of reimbursement will be on the agenda.