Division of powers in county government – the law of the land


On February 22, 2012, I heard Assistant County Attorney Gary Jarvis state that McMurry v Lee County Board of Supervisors was the “seminal case” regarding division of powers in county government.  Jarvis went on say that this Iowa Supreme Court ruling allowed Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner to legally make longevity payments to his first deputy sheriff even though the Linn County Board of Supervisors banned future longevity payments to managers and deputy elected officials in 1998.

According to Iowa Assistant Attorney General Bruce Kempkes in Opinion No. 00-2-3(L) dated 15 February 2000, the Supreme Court of Iowa in McMurry v Lee County Board of Supervisors:

  • Held that county supervisors lacked authority to require all persons serving as deputies in any county office to have two years’ experience; and,
  • Wrote that the Board of Supervisors appears to have proceeded as though our system of county government consisted of central management with subsidiary departments.  With few exceptions, however, our statutes establish autonomous county offices under an elected head.

Several Iowa Attorney General Opinions provide further guidance on the division of powers in county government.  A few are:

  • 1992 Op. Att’y Gen. 37 (#91-7-3(L)); 1990 Op. Att’y Gen. 81 (#90-8-1(L)) (county supervisors should recognize and approve any reasonable and proper appointment made by an elected county officer and may not terminate the employment of any person so appointed);
  • 1986 Op. Att’y Gen. 29, 32 (“even when the supervisors are given a certain degree of statutory approval authority over elected county officers’ functions, that authority must be exercised in a limited and reasonable manner”);
  • 1980 Op. Att’y Gen. 495, 496. See generally 3 E. McQuillin, The Law of Municipal Corporations § 12.27, at 189 (1990). The adjective “extra” in section 331.904(4) presumably modifies both “help” and “clerks” and suggests that an elected county officer can appoint a person or persons for relatively short duration to help handle unexpected increases in workload or other office emergencies;
  •  1984 Op. Att’y Gen. 94 (#83-11-4(L))] (board of supervisors does not have authority to initiate discipline against employees of elected county officials); and,
  • 1986 Op. Att’y Gen. 29, 30 (“Iowa law vests elected county officers with considerable autonomy, and holds those officers accountable to the electorate rather than to the board of supervisors”).

The Iowa Supreme Court’s rulings in McMurry v Lee County Board of Supervisors seem to be the current law of the land regarding the division of powers in county government.  Jarvis acknowledged the same on February 22nd.  I get it.  Do you?

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