County loses attempt to reverse ruling over clerk’s control of budget surplus money

— A state appeals court denied Collier County’s attempts for a rehearing and to have the Supreme Court hear its appeal, affirming that state law gives Clerk of Circuit Courts Dwight Brock the right to use investment interest from county funds he controls.

The District Court of Appeal ruling, handed down Thursday, ends a seven-year battle between Brock and county commissioners, who have spent about $2 million in legal costs over the years in this and related lawsuits involving Brock’s control.

County Commissioners had hoped to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case, calling the control of interest earned on the county’s budget surplus one of statewide importance. But their motions for a rehearing before the appeals court and one asking for certification to have the case heard by the state Supreme Court didn’t offer new arguments.

On Jan. 30, the Second District Court of Appeal called the law “clear and unambiguous” and scolded the county for asking the three-judge panel to reinterpret a state statute that gives circuit clerks control over the funds. The court noted that county attorneys acknowledged they understood the law because their arguments was an attack on the law’s validity. During arguments before the court, one judge laughed as Assistant County Attorney Jacqueline Williams Hubbard argued that the law wasn’t clear.

“The order was what we expected, not what we’d hoped for, but what we’d expected,” County Attorney Jeffrey Klatzkow said Friday. “... It was my opinion we were not likely to get this, but there was no cost involved.”

He said the issue was important to counties statewide because it involved control over interest earned on a county’s budget surplus.

Brock turns back money he does not spend every year to commissioners. That amount has greatly increased over the years, from $1.9 million in 2001 to more than $30 million.

Klatzkow said he will be going before the Board of County Commissioners to get direction on how to proceed further.

Still remaining in Brock’s lawsuit is an argument over whether he’s a fee officer or a budget officer. Brock contends he is a fee officer who controls his own budget, while commissioners maintain he’s a budget officer and they control his budget.

Brock’s attorney, Tom Grady, now a state representative, said he’s confident they’ll win that argument as well. Grady said he heard Wednesday night about the denial for a rehearing.

“I would like to put it behind us and say it’s done with,” Grady said. “They do business together and that’s what’s best for the citizens of Collier County. They should stop wasting money on this.”

In 2007, before the county sued Brock, Grady offered to ask the state Attorney General for an opinion to clarify the law to avoid lengthy and expensive litigation. The county refused and then filed a lawsuit against Brock.

The January appeals ruling reversed a June decision by Circuit Judge Jack Lundy, who was brought in from Glades County and sided with commissioners’ contentions that interest earned on county funds invested by the clerk was not income belonging to the clerk’s office and could not be used without authorization by the Board of County Commissioners. By law, Brock invests the county’s money.

Lundy actually ruled in March 2008, but never wrote an opinion, which allows a party to file an appeal. Brock had to file a motion with the appeals court to force Lundy to put his decision in writing.

Commissioners had said it was never their intent to allow Brock to have the interest money when they settled a 2002 lawsuit on the same issue, while Brock argued that the settlement and state law both gave him the right to use the interest. For years, both sides argued over Brock’s lawsuit, and another in which Brock contended he had the right to audit non-profits to determine what they do with their money.

Lundy ruled in favor of the county, but recused himself from the case after an outburst during one hearing prompted Brock’s attorney to have him removed.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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