Thomas: County attorney attempts ‘political power grab’ in magistrate, officer lawsuit

Published 10:02 am Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The election may have ended in November but the two county attorney candidates are now battling in a different forum. The status of city police officer and county magistrate Travis Thompson hangs in the balance.

The legal dispute that began in March has continued with a host of legal filings on both sides.

Thompson, who is represented by former county attorney Brian Thomas, and the City of Winchester are asking a judge to determine whether Thompson can legally serve as a police officer and as an elected magistrate at the same time. Thomas sought an opinion from the Kentucky Attorney General’s office on the matter in August but it was not issued until Jan. 3.

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Current Clark County Attorney William Elkins raised the issue in January after he took office, saying he believes the two positions are incompatible and Thompson’s oath as magistrate supersedes his oath as an officer.

The attorneys have some history as Elkins defeated the incumbent Thomas in the November 2018 general election.

Elkins’ first letter to the City of Winchester regarding Thompson’s police authority was sent Jan. 11, two days after Thompson’s first fiscal court meeting as a magistrate.

Elkins filed a motion to intervene March 20, but the judge has not ruled on that motion yet. The case is scheduled to be before Clark Circuit Judge Brandy Oliver Brown Thursday.

Filing a motion April 10 to strike Elkins’ answer to the petition because Elkins is not a party in the case, Thomas also filed a response to Elkins’ motion to join the case, calling it a “political power grab” to prevent Thompson from serving as a magistrate. 

Thompson, a Republican, has broken party lines and voted with Robert Blanton, the lone Democrat on the Clark County Fiscal Court, 20 times in the last three months.

“While this effort is camouflaged as an attempt to question Mr. Thompson’s authority in his capacity as a police officer, it is really an effort to have Mr. Thompson retake his police officer oath so that Mr. Elkins can then issue his ‘official opinion’ to the Clark County Fiscal Court that Mr. Thompson cannot hold both positions and see to vacate Mr. Thompson’s magisterial seat so that someone more compliant will be appointed to sit on the Fiscal Court and agree with the majority,” Thomas wrote. “Had (Thompson) shown up and allowed the Court to function in the dark of night and not challenged the questionable activities set forth in various orders, there would not be any case.”

Elkins said Thursday he maintains Thompson is holding a municipal office and a county office at the same time, which is prohibited under state law. He denied any political motivation and said the situation would be the same if a county deputy sheriff was elected to the city commission.

“This is a situation where the city wants an answer to a fairly complex legal question,” Elkins said. “People who live in the county deserve an answer, too. Everybody gets an answer if I’m involved, but only the residents of the city get an answer if I’m not involved.”

Elkins said he offered Thompson and the city options, including Thompson retaking his police officer oath.

“If he thinks he’s right, then I don’t see the harm in him retaking his police officer oath,” Elkins said. “And the people sitting in the back of the car don’t have to wonder it the arrest was proper.”

In other court documents, Elkins questioned whether Thompson could effectively decide county policy as a city employee as well as whether his arrests are legal. Elkins said in previous court filings his interest in intervening in the case were in his roles as the county’s attorney and as prosecutor in district court.

City officials obtained legal opinions from the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office and the Kentucky League of Cities stating the two positions are not incompatible under state law. They said being a police officer is a hired position, though it is listed in state statute as a municipal officer. The opinions said being a city police officer does not qualify as holding a city office, such as police chief. 

“He was hired by the City following an application seeking the position,” City Attorney Bill Dykeman wrote in the city’s response for a summary judgment filed Monday. “He does not perform his duties independently and is directed by his superiors in the chain of command. … As a policeman, Thompson has no power of appointment or removal of any County Magistrate. He has no authority over any of the decisions made by the seven-member Fiscal Court. Neither does he have any say as to County salary negotiations, supervision of the control of County employees.”

On March 4, the Winchester Police Department put Thompson on “desk duty” until the matter could be resolved. Clark Circuit Judge Brandy Oliver Brown issued a temporary restraining order March 22 agreeing that Thompson could serve both positions and that he was suffering financial harm. Brown ordered that Thompson return to his officer position with full authority and powers.

About Fred Petke

Fred Petke is a reporter for The Winchester Sun, the Jessamine Journal and the State Journal. His beats include cops, courts, fire, public records, city and county government and other news. To contact Fred, email or call 859-759-0051.

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