When Steve Milligan was elected Polk County treasurer in 2020, he knew his new job would be little more than a title.
The county four years earlier had removed the duties of its treasurer position, pared down its salary to almost zero and split all of its work between unelected county officials, Milligan told Salem Reporter. He wanted to fix that.
Milligan is now suing Polk County and its administrator, Greg Hansen, alleging the county strips voters of their Constitutional and legal right to elect a treasurer by having the elected position serve as a figurehead.
“Polk County elects to office a person it calls the treasurer but denies that person the duties and functions of the position,” according to the complaint filed Nov. 14 in Polk County Circuit Court.
Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope declined to comment, citing pending litigation. “I have no comment on this matter until the case has been resolved,” Pope said in an email Thursday.
Hansen, Polk County Counsel Morgan Smith, and commissioners Lyle Mordhorst and Jeremy Gordon did not respond to a series of written questions seeking to verify the accuracy of Milligan’s statements.
The county has not filed a response to Milligan’s lawsuit in court.
Under Oregon law, duties of a county treasurer include receiving and paying out county money, keeping treasury books and issuing monthly financial statements.
But Milligan told Salem Reporter that Polk County has transferred those duties to its finance manager and tax collector, both unelected positions overseen by the county administrator.
Meanwhile, he said the treasurer is paid a $1,000 monthly stipend, which amounts to 20% of a full-time employee.
“They locked me out of the upstairs office and put me in an office in the basement,” Milligan said.
When asked what work he does on a day-to-day basis, he said, “Nothing.”
Milligan’s lawsuit seeks a judge’s order that would force Polk County to not block its elected treasurer from carrying out their duties. The complaint also seeks up to $300,000 for damages and back pay.
Milligan was the mayor of Monmouth from 2017 to 2018. He previously served on the Monmouth City Council and the Central School District board. Milligan also worked more than ten years in accounting and financial management for several businesses and nonprofits, according to his complaint.
In summer 2020, Milligan met with then-treasurer Linda Fox to learn about the position. Fox later told him that Hansen, the county administrator, had directed her to no longer communicate with Milligan, according to the lawsuit.
Milligan later spoke with Hansen, who told him that, if elected, he would have “no authority or responsibilities,” the suit alleges. “Hansen explained that the Board of Commissioners had decided to remove the treasurer’s responsibilities because the county’s financial affairs could not be entrusted to the winner of an election.”
Milligan said in his complaint that Hansen told him something to the effect of, “I have the support of the commission. If you think I’m wrong, you will need to force me to do something different.”
Milligan filed the lawsuit with Mary Olson, a resident of Polk County who voted for him in the 2020 election. “She’s the representative for the voters that didn’t get what they expected to get for me as treasurer,” he said.
Fox was elected treasurer in 2003 and served in the position for 12 years, according to Milligan.
When Fox announced in 2015 that she would not be seeking re-election, Hansen wrote a memo to the board of commissioners. He wrote that Fox had been performing the duties of treasurer, tax collector and “a big portion of the Finance duties,” adding that the treasurer’s duties only amounted to eight hours a week, according to Hansen’s memo.
“Polk County needs to determine how to best meet the operational needs of its finance department, tax collector and treasurer duties,” Hansen wrote. He said the county had the same issue 12 years earlier.
“The county decided to let the election process play out and then address those issues later. The results were, that the County was very fortunate with the outcome of the election and having Linda Fox (a CPA) be the successful Treasurer candidate,” he said. “The big question is will Polk County be that lucky again in the election process and can we afford to take that risk as an organization? In my opinion, the county can not let the electoral process play out and hope for the best.”
He wrote that Polk County was a $58 million operation that needed a finance manager with “specified qualifications, training and experience.”
Milligan said Hansen convinced the board in early 2016 to reduce the treasurer from an active, working position to “a figurehead only.”
“Unbeknownst to anybody but a couple of us that were watching real close, they started shifting everything underneath Greg Hansen,” according to Milligan.
Nine Oregon counties – including Lane and Washington – have adopted home rule charters, allowing voters to decide how their county government is organized. Counties without such charters, including Polk, are required to rely on state law, according to the state Legislature.
The Oregon Association of County Treasurers and Finance Officers did not respond to written questions about whether Polk County’s delegation of the treasurer’s responsibilities was unusual compared to other counties in the state.
The Marion County Board of Commissioners appointed Sam Brentano in 2022 to serve as treasurer when there was a vacancy in the office, and he was elected later that year.
Brentano, who came out of retirement to fill the role, said he works part-time and shares some duties with Marion County’s Finance Department. But as treasurer, he still drafts policies related to county investments, writes financial statements, provides training and works with consultants to ensure county projects are funded and unused money is fully invested.
In 2020, when Milligan saw that no one had filed to run for Polk County treasurer just before the cutoff, he saw an opportunity. “My interest is getting it done according to the law,” he said.
Milligan said he didn’t run for election with the intention of suing the county. “I approached them multiple times giving them the opportunity to correct the issue,” he said.
After Milligan was elected, he explained to commissioners at a board meeting and in a letter that he should be able to perform the duties required of the elected treasurer. His attorney also wrote a letter to Hansen in June 2022, citing what state law required of the position.
“Because they kept ignoring it and putting me off, it forced me to just sue,” Milligan said.
He said in his complaint that he was not allowed to use the suite of offices in the Polk County Courthouse where county officials and employees responsible for financial management work. He was not given a key and was instead assigned to a small office space in the basement.
That prevented Milligan from accessing paper documents, including checks and bank records, as well as a safe in the office suite, according to his suit. He was given “read only” access to software the county uses to manage its finances, “which allows him to view, but not to perform, financial activity.”
Milligan also alleged that the county gave him the authority to sign checks when drawing from the county’s bank accounts but did not allow him to pay out money from the county treasury.
“They were already doing the job and then giving me the documentation afterwards, so that I would just basically be signing off on something that they’d already done,” he told Salem Reporter. “They’ve just basically said, ‘We want you up in this corner. Stay there for $1,000 a month, and we’ll get everything done upstairs.’”
Milligan said his previous lawyer retired, which delayed his filing of the lawsuit. He is represented by Misha Isaak, who was previously chief counsel to former Gov. Kate Brown.
“Milligan is concerned about the financial management of Polk County,” the complaint said. “He would like to perform the duties of the office so that he can have some measure of oversight and control with respect to the county’s finances. He believes it is his responsibility to discharge the functions of the office and would like to do so.”
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.