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Supreme Court rules in Freitag’s favor on salary case

Court states commissioners should have given reasons about why it set salary at lower figure

The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag and reversed the Court of Appeals decision last year regarding his salary.

Kurt Freitag

Freitag petitioned the court in June to review the decision after the Court of Appeals the month prior stated it was satisfied the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners acted in accordance with state statute when it awarded him a salary of $97,020 for 2019, a 5% increase from his $92,403 pay in 2018.

A Waseca County District Court judge had previously ruled in August 2019 that the board had set his salary arbitrarily and did not sufficiently take into account the extent of the sheriff’s responsibilities, experience, qualifications and performance when it set his salary.

The Supreme Court, in its written opinion by Chief Justice Lori S. Gildea, stated the district court did not err when it concluded the salary determination was arbitrary. 

“Because no member of the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners articulated a reason behind or basis for the salary the County Board set for the Freeborn County Sheriff, the district court did not clearly err when it concluded that the salary determination was arbitrary,” the opinion stated. 

Freitag in November 2018 had requested a salary of $113,952, which represented a 23% increase from his $92,403 salary. At that time he presented written materials in support of his requested salary, including a breakdown of average sheriff salaries in comparable counties. 

At a board meeting the next month, the county board set the sheriff’s 2019 salary at $97,020 without any discussion or explanation as to how the commissioner who offered the motion arrived at the amount, the court wrote. Dissatisfied with the salary, the sheriff appealed, alleging the board “acted in an arbitrary, capricious, oppressive or unreasonable manner.”

In testimony at the district court trial, several commissioners testified about why they rejected the sheriff’s proposed salary of $113,952, taking into consideration constituent concerns, the tax base and what other officials might think if the request was granted.

The Supreme Court said although the commissioners were able to articulate why they rejected the proposed salary, they did not explain why they decided on the $97,020 figure. Former Commissioner Jim Nelson testified in the district court trial he was given the proposed figure by former Commissioner Glen Mathiason 10 to 15 minutes before the December meeting and that he did not know how Mathiason had come up with the figure. Nelson also testified that he spoke with former Commissioner Mike Lee to see if he would also agree to the figure. Commissioner Chris Shoff was not approached because he had not yet arrived, and Commissioner Dan Belshan was not approached because it was believed he would oppose it. 

Nelson testified that between the workshop and meeting there were no meetings of the board and no written communications exchanged discussing the salary. 

The Supreme Court stated while the Court of Appeals was correct in that the county board did not need to articulate the exact mathematical process used to calculate the salary, it must articulate some reason for settling on the figure. 

The record supports the district court’s finding that there was no explanation for why the county board decided on a salary of $97,020. In other words, the district court could have reasonably concluded that the county board’s salary determination was ‘devoid of articulated reasons,’” the order stated.

The Supreme Court turned the case back over to the Court of Appeals to consider whether the district court gave Freitag an appropriate new salary when it set it at the $113,952 he had requested.