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  • Writer's pictureRoger Sims, Publisher

Opinion: Thompson departs with legacy of a quarter century of service

Updated: Apr 6

By Roger Sims, publisher, Linn County Journal

The sudden departure of Gary Thompson as attorney for the Linn County Commission on Monday, March 4, was both surprising and not surprising.

Thompson was county counselor since December 1998 and during that time had remarkable influence on the commission. For the most part, commissioners trusted his advice and handed over to him increased responsibility with each passing year.

His oversight of the construction of the county Judicial Center proved to be an invaluable service in addition to his weekly duties of attending at least a few hours of each commission meeting and conferring with department heads on legal issues.

He provided direction to the commissioners, and if they chose to disregard his advice, he would at least warn them of the consequences if they didn’t follow it. Ultimately, he would remind them, that he was at their service and would follow their wishes. (Thompson was really a contractor who was deemed an employee by the commission for health insurance and retirement purposes.)

He took charge of the county’s codes court, running the paperwork through his office, a service that won’t be cheap to replace.

Overtime he began taking on some of the roles that a county administrator would normally do. Between Thompson and County Clerk David Lamb, the commissioners received solid advice on issues that mattered to the county.

But with Thompson, the administrative and legal advice made him a bargain for the county.

County administrators in Kansas on average earn just under $100,000 a year, and that would be in addition to any legal costs the county would incur. So recent complaints of the county paying him almost that much each year don’t take that into consideration.

Did Thompson make money, good money, as the county counselor? Undoubtedly. Very few attorneys go into that business to do charity work. Did he overbill the county for his work? The commissioners past and present, at least for the most part, didn't think so. Even Commissioner Johnson, who has been Thompson’s harshest critic of late, has been approving payments to Thompson for the last three years since he was elected to the commission.

At Monday's meeting former commissioner Rick James publicly called into question whether an unsigned page of Thompson's 2016 contract allowed for extra charges if his presence was required past noon on meeting day was approved. Yet for eight years, he voted to pay Thompson's bills, apparently without question.

At the same time other former commissioners have said they believe that there was provision for Thompson being paid for the extra time.

While commissioners – or citizens for that matter – might not always agree with Thompson’s advice or his comments, he seemed to have the best interest of the county and its residents in mind. And despite what his critics say, his legacy will be a quarter century serving as an honorable and loyal public servant.

There will likely be more chaos at commission meetings until he is replaced. Commissioners can’t go into executive session for legal matters without having their attorney present. And the codes court that was created to address runaway code violations, particularly in lake developments, will be on hiatus until the commission is able to restart it.

Thompson and Lamb worked together to provide historical background on past decisions and provided analysis of how those decisions matter today. Lamb has already indicated that while he is running for re-election in November, he will likely retire from the post midway through the four-year term once he has trained a replacement. With both of them gone, there will be no ready source of historical information.

It was no secret that Thompson was looking at retiring from his job as county counselor as early as the end of this year. And mounting harassment from Commissioner Jim Johnson and the group of solar farm opponents who call themselves Citizens for Linn County undoubtedly became wearisome.

So it was surprising that someone who has endured in the quasi-political realm of being a de facto county administrator and has worked to make the county better would quit without notice. But it is also not surprising because no contractor or employee needs the kind of grief that has been shoved his way.

The question now is who will replace him? Popular sentiment now is that the county commission is a minefield, and attorneys in rural areas are hard to find.

The recent interview of a business person who came before the commissioners within the past month compared his discussion with them like “walking into a political vortex.”

While there has been some discussion of expanding the county commission from three members to five members, there is no assurance that would fix what ails the commission.

What is needed more than two more commissioners is a county administrator. While that might seem like an added expense, an administrator would insure that commissioners had the information they needed to make decisions.

As it stands now, commissioners are left to do their own research and in doing so often bring their own biases to the table without much objective research.

Imagine if your local school board did the same thing. How many different opinions would there be on special education, curriculum, or extra curricular activities? Administrators, in this case superintendents, gather information to pass on to school board members and take time to outline the pros and cons of each issue.

The county’s comprehensive plan approved by the commission about a year ago does not have expansion of the commission to five commissioners. It does, however, have the creation of a county administrator position as a goal.

With the loss of Thompson that becomes a need now more than ever. The question is much the same as before: Who would want to step into the minefield the county commission meetings have become?

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