STARKE — Starke County Treasurer Linda Belork, was awarded the right to resume her responsibilities as Starke County Treasurer by Jasper County Circuit Court Judge John D. Potter Thursday, Oct. 18, more than 14 months after being removed from her elected position by Starke County Commissioners.
Belork, who took office Jan. 1, 2009, was stripped of her position by the Commissioners Aug. 11, 2011, following the results of the State Board of Account’s (SBOA) 2010 audit of the county. The audit showed discrepancies in the financial records of both the Starke County Auditor and Starke County Treasurer’s offices.
Belork was blamed, according to Judge Potter’s ruling, by the SBOA and the Starke County Commissioners, along with the Auditor for the problems listed in the audit.
Judge Potter says in his ruling that the SBOA had said they were going to issue a “disclaimer” that the treasurer’s records were insufficient to enter a valid audit opinion of the county’s finances.
Judge Potter's 14-page ruling also notes that in June of 2011, the commissioners entered a corrective Action Plan to the SBOA. The judge's ruling stated "the commissioners were rightfully worried about what effect a poor audit would have on the county's credit rating,and ability to get the best rates for bond issuances and other government finances. The SBOA indicated the discrepancy was at least $810,000."
The document also makes reference to the day Belork was removed as treasurer. Citing that on Aug. 11, 2011, the commissioners held two emergency meetings. By the end of the day, Belork and two members of her staff had been removed from their positions in the Starke County Treasurer’s office; Belork was sued on her bond; a restraining order against Belork was put in place; and the Starke County Auditor gave an affidavit in support of the injunction.
Judge Potter’s court ruling states the following: “The Auditor of Starke County, in an affidavit in support of the injunction, stated that Belork has “caused or allowed to occur, the loss, through negligence, nonfeasance or malfeasance, of substantial public funds of Starke County, Indiana possibly exceeding $900,000.” On Aug. 11, 2011, the Starke County Circuit Court entered the Temporary Restraining Order without notice signed by magistrate Jeanene Calabrese as “Pro Tem/Magistrate.”
In his ruling, Judge Potter lists the auditor as the source of the discrepancies found in the SBOA’s 2010 audit.
“One week after the filing of the suit, the SBOA and the Auditor discovered the reasons for the discrepancies—an error in the Auditor’s office, which showed an inflated balance in the payroll fund of the county, which was confirmed less than one month later, on Sept. 6, 2011, in a report from the SBOA.
The payroll clerk in the Auditor’s office failed to properly deduct amounts which were paid for withholding from Starke County’s Payroll Clearing Fund. Further audits discovered more thane one and one-half million dollars in mistakes in the payroll account in the Auditor’s office.
The 2010 Audit by the SBOA noted that the Auditor’s office made the mistake and has remedied the situation with corrections totaling $869,050 for 2010 and $614, 672 for 2011,” Judge Potter wrote.
Judge Potter said the payroll account and ledger were the responsibility of the auditor, not Belork and that’s where the errors were found.
In the suit, the commissioners entered a complaint that alleged that Belork was delinquent in her duties as Starke County Treasurer. They also alleged a total of more than $900,000 that was not properly accounted for.
Belork filed a counterclaim where she sought to be recognized as Starke County Treasurer because she claimed her removal was improper. Belork also asked the court for the reimbursement of her legal fees on the basis that she said the county’s suit was frivolous.
Judge Potter explained in his ruling how the law states such a situation to be handled. Unfortunately, for the commissioners, the law is on the side of Starke County Treasurer Linda Belork.
"Belork was elected Treasurer, entitled to the office as the result of the 2008 election. Under Indiana precedents, the County Commissioners of Starke County, who had no power to appoint her, were exercising a power judicial in nature and owed Belork an opportunity to be heard before removing her from elected office,” Judge Potter said in his ruling.
Judge Potter said there was plenty of time to provide Belork with her right to due process because the decision to remove her was made two months before that action was actually taken.
“The commissioners had plenty of time and opportunity to give Belork some rudimentary due process as required by Indiana law. On June 17, 2011, they submitted a plan of correction to the SBOA in which they asserted they were going to fire the Treasurer. The decision to remove her; that she was delinquent, was made long before the second meeting on Aug. 11, 2011, at which she received no meaningful notice and no opportunity to be heard,” Judge Potter wrote.
Belork’s counterclaim was for declaratory relief that she is still entitled to the position of elected treasurer.
Potter reviewed the steps taken by the commissioners and ruled that they had denied Belork due process.
“Indiana law requires notice and hearing before the commissioners can oust an elected official. In this case, the commissioners failed to provide even a modicum of the required amount of process to Belork before voting to remove her. Their decision as Indiana law holds was judicial in nature and no hearing was had or opportunity afforded to Belork to be heard.
Potter ruled that the commissioners did have the statutory right to sue Belork. However, he also ruled that based on evidence presented, or lack thereof, that Belork was not delinquent; she is declared the elected treasurer of Starke County; she was not properly removed from office by the commissioners; she is ordered to immediately be reinstated, and any injunctions and restraining orders lifted.
Belork was also awarded back pay of her salary plus eight percent interest. Potter also ruled that no money in suit was in fact ever missing, nor was it the responsibility of the treasurer. Potter said the error was made by the auditor.
Commission President Kathy Norem said that while the judge's ruling is disappointing, the commission stands by their decision; and they will continue to hold those in office to a high standard of excellence where service to the tax payers is concerned.
"We are disappointed that the outcome of this case did not meet our expectations. We hold each office holder accountable for the responsibilities of their office. In this case, we felt that our actions were warranted because these responsibilities were not being effectively met causing an intolerable lack of service for the tax payers of Starke County. We will continue to hold all office holders to this standard of service and move forward in the management of operations for Starke County," Norem said.