Starke County Sheriff Sues Merit Board

Sheriff Cowen (R) discusses the lawsuit against the Merit Board with the Starke County Council

A feud between Starke County Sheriff Oscar Cowen and Merit Board President Ken Arnett has spilled over into a public squabble. Ken Arnett came before the Starke County Council Monday night requesting funds to fight a suit brought by the sheriff against the Merit Board.

“I’m here requesting funding for attorneys fees for the Merit Board,” said Arnett. “As I’m sure you’ve probably know, a suit has been filed against the Merit Board.”

Sheriff Cowen objected to the term “suit” calling the document “a petition”. The council members disagreed, pointing out it was their opinion that it was a suit and Arnett was allowed to go on with his request.

“Rules and regulations state that expenses of the board, as part of the county police, to be part of the Sheriff’s budget. On Thursday of last week, I received notice, as well as the balance of the Merit Board that we have been sued by the Sheriff. Therefore, I’m asking that the county appropriate funds for the board to hire an attorney in order to fight this suit.”

Cowen explained why “a petition” was being brought against the merit board.

“There are a lot of questions in the rules and regulations that Starke County’s been dealing with with the Merit Board,” said Cowen. “Howard Williams offered to come down and reconstruct the Merit Board so that we run on a proper level.”

Cowen said Howard Williams, a legal advisor to the Sheriff’s Association, would be handling the matter at no cost to the county.

“He’s just wanting to reconstruct the existing Merit Board. Regardless of what Mr. Arnett says, which would end up costing the taxpayers money, we have a legal attorney for the sheriffs that would come down and reconstruct the whole Merit Board system at no cost.”

The Merit Board is filled by appointment. The Sheriff names three members and the county officers name two. Cowen would like to see the terms staggered.

“There are five members. One resigned because he didn’t like the fighting and arguing that was going on at our meetings. The other three have agreed that they just would like to reconstruct so that we could start running on a more proper basis.”

The Sheriff said Ken Arnett was the only board member objecting to what he called the reconstructing of the board membership rules. Arnett said that is not true.

“The day I talked to two of the members today and one on Saturday and my question to them was should I not even fight this thing and walk away or do they want me to come here tonight and I was told to come here tonight. One person said, ‘If you’re going to dive into this thing, go deep and don’t go home’.”

The suit petitioned the court to enter judgment on a number of issues naming all of the merit board members. The suit claims, at one point, that Ken Arnett is openly hostile, adverse, and disruptive of the Sheriff’s attempts to govern the Sheriff’s office. It also states that if the court finds it appropriate, the entire Merit Board should be dissolved and reconstituted, and that Ken Arnett should be removed for cause.

In the end, the councilmen asked Arnett if he would be willing to enter into mediation conducted at no charge by former Starke County Judge and current Councilman, Marvin McLaughlin, to which he agreed. The same question was put to Sheriff Cowen, who after checking with Williams the next day, also agreed. Judge McLaughlin will now set a time and location for the mediation.