News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 22, 2013

Five-judge panel hears Seelyville case arguments

Arthur Foulkes
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — A rare panel of five Vigo County superior court judges listened Friday to a complicated and unusual case pitting local elected officials against each other.

The case pits the town of Seelyville clerk-treasurer, Connie Hinsenkamp, against the three-person elected Seelyville town board. Because elected officials are on opposite sides, a panel of judges must hear the case.

Hinsenkamp, a Democrat, filed a lawsuit more than a year ago accusing the board, made up of Democrats Jerry Jones, Jerry Reynolds and John Wade, of overstepping its authority when it voted to rehire a town employee Hinsenkamp had fired the same day.

But that’s not all. Hinsenkamp, through her attorney, Chou-il Lee, argued Friday that the board voted to redefine the clerk-treasurer’s duties without following proper procedures. Hinsenkamp also alleges that two board members, Jones and Wade, should be removed from office for approving town expenses outside of town meetings.

On the other side, the town board, through attorney Thomas Bodkin of Evansville, argued Friday that, if Jones and Wade are removed, Hinsenkamp should lose her office, too. After all, she approved the expenses by signing the checks, Bodkin told the judges.

Another aspect of the case involves Hinsenkamp’s pay. The previous clerk-treasurer, Tamara Caton, was hired by the town board to also be the office manager in the town hall at the same time she was clerk-treasurer. The combined salary for both jobs reached about $48,000 – well above the pay for a clerk-treasurer, which is a little more than $16,600 per year.

In February of last year, Hinsenkamp, the newly-elected clerk-treasurer, fired Caton from the office manager position, but the town board reinstated Caton the same day. Now both Hinsenkamp and Caton are being paid the “office manager” salary of approximately $31,000. Hinsenkamp argues that the board effectively changed the salary for the clerk-treasurer’s job when it added the office manager duties and pay to Caton’s position. And, according to state law, Hinsenkamp says the town board does not have the authority to reduce that pay.

Among many other things, both sides also disagree over who had the authority to hire or fire Caton as office manager.

The office manager job involves billing for the Seelyville water works. Even if the town sold off the water works and that billing job was no longer needed, the town would still be required to pay the clerk-treasurer the full $48,000, Lee said.

In effect, the town council created this situation by hiring Caton, while she was clerk-treasurer, to perform the office manager duties, Lee said. “That’s when everything hits the fan.”

The five judges, who asked questions of Bodkin and Lee during the 90-minute hearing, gave both sides 30 days to submit suggestions for how they should rule.

The judges listening to the case Friday were superior court judges David Bolk, Phillip Adler, John Roach, Chris Newton and Michael Lewis. Judge Michael Rader was unable to attend due to another commitment, Bolk said.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com