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Court of Appeals sides with county on sheriff’s salary

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has reversed the decision of a Waseca County District Court Judge to raise Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag’s 2019 salary to almost $114,000.

Kurt Freitag

The court, which issued its ruling Tuesday, said it was satisfied the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners acted in accordance with state statute when it awarded Freitag a salary of $97,020, a 5% increase from his $92,403 pay in 2018. 

“The district court’s findings and legal conclusions to the contrary are clearly erroneous,” the ruling stated. 

The ruling brings to a close a 1 1/2-year-long legal battle between the county and the sheriff. 

Freitag in December 2018 had appealed the $97,020 salary for 2019 the board set for him, and the matter came before Waseca County District Court Judge Carol Hanks in May 2019. 

After a court trial, Hanks ordered Freitag be paid $113,952, based on comparisons to salaries of sheriffs in other counties and taking into account Freitag’s responsibilities. She said evidence showed the board did not sufficiently take into account the extent of the sheriff’s responsibilities, experience, qualifications and performance when it set his salary.

The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners in response to Hanks’ ruling in September 2019 voted to appeal the decision and both sides had since been awaiting the outcome. 

In a statement, the commissioners said they were pleased with the outcome of the case. 

“The board feels that the Appellate Court’s decision fairly and accurately took into account all the relevant information and testimony and then determined that the county board acted in accordance with the statute for setting elected officials’ salaries,” the statement said. 

Freitag said he was disappointed in the ruling but declined further comment. 

The appeals court in its ruling stated the county board’s salary determination was not “arbitrary, capricious or oppressive.” It stated the board had an adequate rationale for its salary determination and that it balanced a variety of competing factors, including Freitag’s performance and submitted materials, the county’s economic condition, budgetary constraints and concerns from constituents before deciding the salary. 

“Freitag failed to meet his burden of providing sufficient evidence to undercut the county’s rationale,” the ruling stated. “Absent evidence to the contrary, the record warrants the conclusion that the board engaged in reasoned decision-making grounded in facts.”

The appeals court stated it interpreted state statute differently than the judge at the district court level.

“Read as a whole, the statute provides what a county board must consider — the sheriff’s experience, qualifications, and performance and the responsibilities and duties of the sheriff’s office — but does not prohibit consideration of other relevant factors,” the court said. 

Examples of other factors included a county’s economic situation, budgets and tax base, concerns from constituents and salaries of sheriff’s in comparable counties.

“In sum, based upon the record and a number of the district court’s factual findings, we are satisfied that the county board sufficiently considered Freitag’s experience, qualifications and performance, and the responsibilities and duties of the sheriff’s office when determining his 2019 salary,” the ruling said. “Freitag failed to meet his burden of demonstrating otherwise.”

Freeborn County Administrator Tom Jensen said the board in December 2019 chose to table setting Freitag’s 2020 salary pending the outcome of the court case, and he anticipated the issue would come before the board again in the coming weeks.