James Ebert

James Ebert's two-week stint in April 2019 with the Rich County Sheriff's Office is coming under scrutiny by some. In this June 5, 2018, photo, Ebert, then seeking re-election as a Weber County commissioner, answers a question during a debate at the Pleasant Valley branch library in Washington Terrace with his primary opponents, Gage Froerer, left, and James Couts.

OGDEN — Back in April, mulling his future after a term as a Weber County commissioner, James Ebert took a job with the Rich County Sheriff's Office as a dispatcher/jailer.

"I took the job because I had an opportunity to work back in law enforcement," said Ebert. He had worked 23 years in the Riverdale Police Department before winning election to the county commission and moving to the commission post, which he held from January 2015 until early January this year.

There was a deputy position possibly coming open, and he wanted to position himself to have a shot at it. Turns out the deputy position didn't come open, and after just two weeks, Ebert left the Rich County job.

Ultimately, Ebert took over as executive director of the Weber-Davis Boys & Girls Club, his current job. But now, some are talking about that two-week stint in Rich County, which enabled Ebert, 52, to tap into pension benefits as a former public employee sooner than would otherwise have been possible, without an early-age reduction.

"To me it appears that there's a loophole in the retirement system," said Justin Fawson, a former Utah state representative from North Ogden who proposed legislation in 2018 targeting those taking short-term jobs seemingly to bolster their public pension. "It just costs the state money. I don't think it's ethical."

To be sure, Ebert did nothing illegal. He was careful to stay within the dictates of law as he planned his retirement as a public official, he said, consulting with reps from the Utah Retirement System, which manages the state's retirement system. "We had very open conversations with URS about the position we were in," Ebert said.

Still, other political watchers in Weber County, like Toby Mileski, have taken note of the situation with dismay. He's a former Pleasant View mayor and Northern Utah rep to the Utah Transit Authority Board of Trustees and a current Pleasant View City Council candidate.

"The system allows this to happen, which is wrong," Mileski said.

And the turn of events underscores the pointed back-and-forth sometimes characteristic of Weber County politics. Indeed, it harkens back to a similar situation involving Matthew Bell, another former Weber County commissioner who worked for five days in the Weber County Sheriff's Office after stepping down as commissioner, presumably to bolster his pension package.

Bell had served in the sheriff's office for around 16 years before serving a four-year term as commissioner. His subsequent five-day sheriff's office stint from Dec. 30, 2016, through Jan. 3, 2017, was the focus of sniping among Weber County Republican leaders last year ahead of the political group's 2018 nominating convention.

"They're working the system for their benefit," said Mileski, who sees himself as a watchdog. He tracked Ebert's employment history in Rich County and obtained Bell's employment records ahead of the GOP convention last year.

Ebert shied from responding to the criticism. He's no longer an elected official and doesn't want to get involved in a political squabble, he said, particularly in light of his new role with the Boys and Girls Club. "I'm just a private citizen now," Ebert said.

Bell, when questioned on the matter last year, emphasized that everything he did was within the law.

'ABSOLUTE MANIPULATION'

Per URS guidelines, retiring public employees tap the benefit package of the system pertinent to the job they're holding on retirement. A retiring county commissioner, for instance, might tap into the noncontributory retirement system for public employees while a sheriff's office employee would follow the guidelines of the public safety retirement system.

The criticism directed at Ebert and Bell stems from some of the more beneficial terms of the public safety retirement system, meant to reflect the higher-risk jobs of the law enforcement officials covered by the guidelines. Under the public safety system, for instance, retirees can tap benefits, whatever their age, if they have 20 years of service. Under the public employees system, retirees must wait until they're 65 to tap benefits, though they can tap them earlier and take an early-age reduction that would lower the pension they get.

In Ebert's case, retiring from public employment as a Rich County Sheriff's Office employee, not a Weber County commissioner, allows him to tap into the public safety retirement system. Thus, having more than 20 years of service — 23 years with the Riverdale Police Department — he may start collecting his full pension immediately rather than waiting until he's 65 or taking an early-age reduction.

On the flip side, to deny him the public safety pension had he retired as a county commissioner, arguably, could be seen as unfair since he accrued more than 20 years of law enforcement work.

Other elements of the public safety pension are also more potentially lucrative.

For instance, Ebert could use the higher wage he earned as county commissioner compared to his police salary — pulling from pay figures on the Utah State Auditor's Office website Transparent Utah — in calculating his public safety pension, per URS guidelines. Even so, URS officials say, the complex formulas they use to calculate pensions aim to offset such potential advantages.

Notwithstanding the benefits of one system over another, Ebert maintains that his stint in Rich County stemmed from potential interest in working long-term in the department. Records supplied to the Standard-Examiner by the Rich County Clerk/Auditor's office show he was on the payroll there from April 1-15 and worked eight 10-hour days in all during the period. Rich County Sheriff Dale Stacey, who did not respond to queries seeking comment, hired Ebert.

Fawson's 2018 legislation — spurred by Bell, he said — would have required retiring public employees who have worked under two or more retirement systems to tap into the system that had most recently covered them for at least six months. Accordingly, Bell and Ebert would not have been able to tap into the public safety system given their short stints in the system on retiring — five days in Bell's case and two weeks in Ebert's case.

However, the measure, House Bill 128, did not pass.

In Bell's case, his four years as county commissioner added to his 16-and-a-half years in the Weber County Sheriff's Office pushed him past the 20-year threshold, enabling him to get a full public safety pension before waiting until he was 65, per URS guidelines. Fawson is all for rewarding law enforcement officials for their work, he said, but that bothered him, spurring his focus on the matter.

"I thought it was an absolute manipulation of the system. I thought it was unethical," he said. Fawson, no longer a state representative, now lives in North Carolina, though he keeps tab on Utah and Weber County politics.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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