Williams City Council members chose not to make a decision about changing the employment status of the magistrate and judges pro-tem from independent contractors to city employees during the council's March 14 regular meeting.
Williams Magistrate Rob Krombeen's contract with the city expired in December 2012. Under that contract, he had been working as an independent contractor. Along with a change in employment status, Krombeen also asked for an increase in pay.
After the meeting, Krombeen said the language regarding independent contractors in his old contract doesn't suit judges.
"What we've found is it seems that the classification as a part time employee seems to better fit the nature of those positions, as judges are agents of both the city and the state of Arizona for that matter, and they're subject to court scheduling, policies and directives."
Vice mayor Don Dent and councilman Frank McNelly recused themselves from the discussion.
Pro-tem judges serve as alternate judges if the magistrate is not available or has a conflict of interest in a case. Williams has two pro-tem judges, Warren Sanford and Robert Rantz, who are only paid for the hours they work. They serve as pro-tem judges in both the municipal (city) and justice (county) courts.
City attorney Kellie Peterson said while many states require pro-tem judges to be independent contractors, the part time employee classification is also legal in Arizona.
All part time judges in the county are classified as part time employees, Krombeen added after the meeting.
In a staff report to the mayor and council, City Manager Brandon Buchanan recommended that the magistrate and pro-tem judges be designated as part time, regular status employees with supplemental employment agreements that limit benefits.
As part time employees, the city would be required to pay percentage contributions to Social Security, unemployment and other taxes. The city would pay these taxes on a monthly basis, regardless of whether the pro-tem judges worked or not. The taxes would be no more than $2,000 per position per year, Buchanan said in his report.
Regular part time employees of the city are also eligible for pro-rated health benefits. However, under the recommendation, the magistrate and pro-tem judges would sign employment agreements that would eliminate these benefits because of their cost to the city. The council would have to approve the employment agreements.
Councilman Lee Payne was concerned about who would monitor the pro-tem judges.
"Who's going to keep tabs on how many hours they're working and things like that?" he asked. "We have to have some accountability on how many hours we're being charged."
Krombeen said the court would schedule and oversee the hours. He added that sometimes the pro-tem judges are not needed for months at a time.
Peterson added that Krombeen maintains the court budget and presents it to the council.
"Either way, whether they're independent contractors or employees, it's still got to come out of court budget," she said.
Councilman Jim Wurgler made a motion to designate the magistrate and pro-tem judges as part time employees with non-negotiable employment agreements.
No one seconded the motion, so the motion died and discussion continued.
Payne asked if it would be possible for the county to provide judge services for the city.
Peterson said it was possible but there were some things to consider.
"One of the goals of the court is to really truly separate the city court and the county court," she said. "If we go through that and contract through the county for that I think the city gives up some of its control over that court and gives up that separation between the courts and really blends them in a way that we have been trying to separate them."
Krombeen said if he continues to serve as an independent contractor, he would want insurance to protect him from any liabilities. An independent insurance agent told Krombeen they could not underwrite him for personally purchased insurance for his position.
"The realistic liability may be a low risk, but it's still one of those risks that most business people wouldn't take," Krombeen said after the meeting.
At this point, councilman Bernie Hiemenz made a motion that the magistrate continue under the same contract.
"Keep in mind I'm not sure that I'm willing to work under the same contract," Krombeen said.
No one seconded the motion, so the motion died.
"I've never quite been in this situation, apparently we have no decision," Mayor John Moore said.
Payne said he needed more information.
The council agreed to discuss the matter again at the next meeting. Krombeen said he would continue his work until a decision is reached.