ELYRIA — Before Lorain County Auditor Craig Snodgrass hired his predecessor, Mark Stewart, in April, he asked county Treasurer Dan Talarek to give Stewart a job, Talarek said Thursday.
Snodgrass wanted Stewart to represent the treasurer’s office on the county Board of Revision and even often offered to cover Stewart’s wages out of funds he controlled, Talarek said.
Talarek refused and Snodgrass hired Stewart himself in April to work for the Board of Revision reviewing case files. Stewart worked for four hours on a Saturday before resigning and cashing out 1,000 hours worth of unused sick time that earned him $18,080.
Talarek said although he was short-staffed when Snodgrass asked him to hire Stewart earlier this year, he didn’t want someone with divided loyalties representing his office. He said whoever represents him on the Board of Revision needs to be one of his deputy treasurers.
“I didn’t feel it was proper to have two people represent the auditor’s office,” he said.
County Commissioner Tom Williams said he finds it suspicious that Snodgrass asked Talarek to hire Stewart.
“That just seems like, ‘Hey, I’m doing this for my buddy and this is what we need,’” Williams said. “I think it’s wrong.”
Stewart retired at the end of 2012 and backed Snodgrass, his longtime chief deputy, to succeed him when county Democrats met to pick a successor to serve out the remaining two years of his term.
Snodgrass said he was never serious about having Talarek hire Stewart, who also serves as chairman of the Elyria Democratic Party and is backing a controversial plan to reform county government.
“Entirely joking around about it because I knew they both had the same problem,” Snodgrass said Thursday.
Both Talarek and Stewart went from being county employees to elected officials, and although they were allowed to cash out unused vacation time when they madet he transition, they could not do the same with sick time. But the sick time remained on the books, and if either man took a job in county government after leaving office, he would be eligible to use it or cash it out.
Stewart, who became auditor in 1995, had 1,208.24 unused sick hours when he resigned and cashed out 1,000 of those hours after his four-hour shift in April. He was paid at a rate of $18.08 an hour for both the four hours he worked and for the unused sick time.
But under county rules in place since 2005, he was only eligible to be paid for 250 of those hours, according to Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes.
Snodgrass has said Stewart has agreed to refund the county for the 750 hours — worth $13,560 — he was ineligible to receive.
Talarek said the subject of paying out Stewart’s unused sick hours never came up with Snodgrass and that even the offer to have the auditor paying for one of his employees didn’t entice him to hire Stewart.
“I wasn’t doing it, period,” Talarek said.
County Commissioner Ted Kalo said he was troubled Snodgrass asked Talarek to hire Stewart.
“It gives me great concern that Craig was asking the county treasurer to hire his former boss and then ended up hiring him himself,” Kalo said.
Snodgrass previously has said he needed help with the large number of Board of Revisions cases his office was dealing with and Stewart had the necessary expertise to do the work. He has said he expected Stewart to work for far longer than four hours.
Snodgrass also said that he was never given a copy of the most recent update of the rules dealing with employees cashing out sick leave, which were approved by the commissioners in March.
Innes, however, said that even without the March resolution, Stewart wouldn’t have been eligible to be paid for 1,000 hours. He said the commissioners first adopted a rule in 2005 that said employees with carryover sick time hired after Nov. 15, 2005, are considered new hires and only eligible to cash in 250 hours of unused sick time when they leave.
He said the rules were updated again in 2007, but who was considered a new hire for purposes of cashing in sick leave remained the same as in 2005. He said the most recent change was to clarify the issue even further.
Snodgrass, who denied Stewart had worked for him when questioned about it by The Chronicle-Telegram in August, said he doesn’t think the rules from the past eight years are as clear as Innes has made them out to be.
“I tend to disagree with that, especially since it was made so clear in the 2013 model,” he said. “There must be some question or they wouldn’t have done it.”
County Administrator Jim Cordes said the rules have had to be continually revised because employees keep finding ways to circumvent them.
“Every time that somebody finds a loophole, we close the loophole,” he said. “The pieces that affect Mr. Stewart were in place since 2005.”
Innes said last week that the payout was legal, but has since said that he hadn’t realized how many hours Stewart cashed out when he was asked about the matter. The general practice of returning employees cashing out prior unused sick hours is legal, he said, and there is no minimum number of hours a returning employee must work for the county in order to be paid for unused sick time.
Cordes said the county needs to review that rules and come up with a way to prevent someone from returning for a similarly short stint as Stewart enjoyed in April.
“Obviously somebody’s found an unexpected way of abusing the policy, so I’m sure counsel will be recommending some changes to that,” Cordes said.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.