Court of Appeals affirms county contract decision

John Richmeier

The Kansas Court of Appeals is upholding a lower court’s decision that voided the contract of a former human resources director for the Leavenworth County government.

The appellate court’s decision, which was released Friday, is the latest ruling in a lawsuit that was filed in 2017 on behalf of Leavenworth County commissioners. The lawsuit challenged the five-year contract for Tamara Copeland.

The contract was approved in 2016. At the time, Copeland was serving as the county’s human resources director.

The contract called for Copeland to continue to receive her salary for the remainder of her five-year contract period after her termination as long as she was willing and able to perform her duties and had not been convicted of a felony or fraud directly related to her job duties. Under the terms of the contract, Copeland also would have been entitled to continue to participate in her employee benefits after her termination.

The lawsuit was filed in June 2017 after a change in the makeup of the County Commission.

Copeland was terminated from her position with the county in October 2017.

In December 2018, Kansas Senior Judge Edward Bouker found that the contract “was an attempt to improperly bind future boards in matters involving their own administration and responsibilities, thus violating public policy. The contract is thus invalid.”

Copeland appealed this district court decision to the Kansas Court of Appeals.

In their ruling last week, the appellate judges found “no legal or factual errors in the district court’s determination that the five-year contract between the board and Copeland is void and, thus, unenforceable as a matter of law.”

Court of Appeals Judge G. Gordon Atcheson wrote the decision for the three-judge panel that considered the appeal.

Atcheson wrote in the decision that “Kansas appellate courts have long recognized that the elected members of a municipality’s legislative body, such as a county commission, generally cannot enter into contracts that obligate the body beyond its current term.”

Copeland’s five-year contract was approved in 2016 by a 2-1 vote. Commissioners Bob Holland and Dennis Bixby voted for it. Commissioner Clyde Graeber voted against the contract.

Holland, Bixby and Graeber no longer serve on the commission. And the County Commission has since expanded from a three-member board to a five-member commission.

At the time of the 2016 vote, Bixby already had been defeated in a primary election in a failed bid for reelection. And he was set to leave his position on the County Commission the following January.

At the time of the vote, Holland argued Copeland “needs our protection from those that may still want to try to fire her in the next several years because of the work she is doing for the county.”

Atcheson wrote in the Court of Appeals decision that "Holland, thus, promoted the contract as a means of tying the hands of a successor board."

The lawsuit filed in 2017 also initially challenged the employment contracts of County Counselor Mollie Hill, Deputy County Counselor Andrea Hughes and Road and Bridge Superintendent Vincent Grier.

Grier later was dismissed from the lawsuit.

In May 2018, the County Commission reached settlements with Hill and Hughes, who had been fired from their positions. Hill now works for the Leavenworth County Sheriff’s Office.

Twitter: @LVTNewsJohnR