Kim Davis has generated a lot of news for a rural county clerk in her first year on the job, but she’s no stranger to controversy.
The 49-year-old Davis, who has been held in contempt of court and jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, took office Jan. 5 as Rowan County clerk — a position held by her mother for 38 years.
Davis worked as a deputy clerk for her mother, Jean Bailey, for 24 of those years. She barely squeaked by in Democratic primary last year and then defeated a Republican rival to succeed her.
Kentucky’s nepotism law does not prohibit family members of public servants from working in the same agency, but officials “may not advocate or influence” their employment or advancement, and they are not allowed to directly supervise, evaluate or discipline a relative.
Public servants are, however, permitted to set their relatives’ levels of pay.
Bailey faced only one opponent in her nearly four decades in office, soundly defeating Charlotte Combess in 2010 — as complaints mounted about spending in the county clerk’s office.
The Rowan County Fiscal Court, the county’s governing body, cut Bailey’s budget in 2011 for the first time in 32 years after residents complained about her daughter’s salary — which was significantly higher than the chief deputies of any other county agency.
Davis earned an annual wage of $51,812 in 2011, along with an additional $11,301 in overtime pay and other compensation.
By comparison, the sheriff’s chief deputy was paid $38,000 and the deputy judge-executive received $36,000 — and neither of those public officials received any overtime pay.
Bailey asked the fiscal court to approve a $300,000 budget, including nearly $198,000 for set aside to pay five employees, for 2012 — but county commissioners unanimously voted to cut her budget by a third, to $200,000, of the level it had been since 2007.
“My feelings are hurt and I’m disappointed that I was not extended the courtesy of explaining my salary budget before the fiscal court was ready to take action,” Bailey complained at the time.
Bailey, who earned $82,760 at the time, said at the time that she would likely be forced to cut hours of operation at the clerk’s office to offset the salary budget cuts.
“Kim has worked in my office for nearly 24 years and knows this operation from top to bottom,” she added. “She works long hours, often goes without vacation, and is very skilled at her job. She earns her pay and does not deserve this kind of treatment.”
Davis cited that experience during her election campaign last year, when she defeated fellow Democrat Elwood Caudill Jr. by just 23 votes out of nearly 4,000 ballots cast in a May primary.
She defeated Republican John Cox by a 53-47 margin in November, promising at the time to “be the very best working clerk that I can be” and “follow the statutes of this office to the letter.”
Davis gained fame — or infamy, depending on the perspective — about six month after taking office by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.
U.S. District Court Judge David Bunning ordered her held on contempt charges last week, after the county clerk refused to obey multiple court orders to follow the law on marriage equality, and she was released Tuesday after five of her six deputies agreed to issue the licenses in her absence.
The only deputy clerk who refused the judge’s order was Nathan Davis — the county clerk’s 21-year-old son.
Bunning did not order him held, however, since his other colleagues were willing to follow the law.
Davis, who draws an $80,000 salary as county clerk, will be paid for the business days she spent in jail and for the days she will spend at home before returning to work, either Friday or Monday.
Elected officials in Kentucky are paid whether they work or not, and the Rowan County attorney said those officials are given discretion for their own paid time off.
However, the county attorney said “voters will vote you out if you take too much.”
Davis does not face re-election until 2019, assuming she is not impeached by Kentucky’s Democratic majority — but still very conservative — legislature when lawmakers return to session in January.
Her attorneys from the Liberty Counsel have signaled that Davis may not comply with the judge’s order when she returns to work.
But one of her deputies, Brian Mason, has vowed to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — even if Davis orders him not to do so.
Clerk salaries are set by the state and determined by county size, but they are not permitted to pay themselves any less and are eligible for raises if they’re re-elected.
Davis’ salary is more than double the $31,798 average annual pay of all workers in Rowan County, which has 23,447 residents, according to the state schedule that sets county clerk pay.