2020: Is your county policy ready for the new decade?
By Lindsey Bailey, AAC Legal Counsel
When you hear “quorum court,” your mind probably goes straight to the meat of the court’s business: budgets, appropriations, and “holding the purse strings” of county funds. While budgeting and appropriating county funds is a large part of what the quorum court does, its powers are actually much more expansive. Prior to the approval of Amendment 55 to the Arkansas Constitution in the 1974 general election, the duties of the quorum court were quite different than its modern-day responsibilities. Since its passage, the antiquated judicial functions of the justices of the peace that comprise the quorum court have been removed from the office, and the quorum court now acts solely as the true legislative branch of county government.
Amendment 55 grants the county, through its quorum court, the right to exercise local legislative authority not denied by the Constitution or by law, broadly known as “home rule.” This means that generally, with some narrow exceptions, a county quorum court can pass an ordinance setting county law so long as it does not conflict with federal or state law, including case law set by the courts. Ordinances passed by the county have the effect of law — the same as a state statute or federal code, and a county ordinance is the law of the land in that county. The court can even create misdemeanor criminal offenses by ordinances, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 per violation.
However, perhaps the most overlooked duty of the quorum court is to set general county policy and personnel policy for county employees, to “provide for [the county’s] own organization and management of its affairs.” Ark. Code Ann. §14-14-801(b)(12). This means that, so long as it is consistent with state law, the quorum court has the authority to create a county policy, which shall organize, manage, and direct the operations of the county and its employees, generally. County elected officials are not considered county employees subject to the provisions of the county personnel policy. Another important exception is that the county judge has sole authority over custody, administration, and maintenance of county buildings and property, pursuant to Amendment 55.
With the new year and new decade just around the corner, the initial organizational meeting of the quorum court in January 2020 is a great time to consider revisions to the county’s general and personnel policy. I receive numerous questions from justices of the peace and county officials alike about what employees can and cannot do: the hours they work, personal cell phone and social media use, the use of self-reporting time sheets verses countywide-implemented time clocks, etc. The answer is simple — this should be addressed in your county personnel policy. Sometimes, the quorum court will pass by ordinance a county personnel policy that defers to each elected official, allowing the official to effectively create their own policy for their individual office. Other times, the quorum court will pass policies that apply to all county employees generally. Either option is fine — county government is never one-size-fits-all — the important thing is that some thoughtful policy governing county operation be passed.
A good county personnel policy will outline the county’s employee attendance requirements, sick and vacation leave, compensation procedures including overtime and compensatory time, county-recognized holidays, drug-testing, group insurance benefits, grievance hearing procedures, and much more. This way both the county elected officials, as well as the county employees, are aware of what is expected and what the consequences are if the policies are violated. A good, comprehensive county personnel policy also ensures that the policies are applied uniformly and in a non-discriminatory or discretionary fashion. There is nothing that prohibits a county elected official from having their own policies in their office governing their employees, so long as they do not conflict with federal or state law or the general county personnel policy.
Before passing the personnel policy, the quorum court should consider the input of the county elected officials, who will be tasked with enforcing the policies in their offices. A policy is only as effective as its enforcement. Also, as previously mentioned, the county judge has jurisdiction over when the physical courthouse and other county buildings are open — so it is wise to coordinate with the county judge around hours of operation and county-recognized holidays. The county judge can unilaterally close county property to public business by court order; however, details like employee pay for holidays are handled much more smoothly when the county judge and county policy are in agreement on these matters.
The county policy ordinance is just as important as the annual budget ordinance and should be given equal thought and consideration by the quorum court. I encourage both justices of the peace and county elected officials to take these final weeks before the new year and review your own county policy to make sure that it is comprehensive, adequate, fair, and in accordance with federal and state law. AAC Risk Management attorneys have created a model county personnel policy that is regularly updated to comply with new case law, constitutional amendments, and any other changes that may be needed. The AAC is happy to provide this model county personnel policy to any district or county official upon request.