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Hubbard County to hire fourth attorney

After much discussion, the Hubbard County Board of Commissioners approved the request of Hubbard County Attorney Donovan Dearstyne to hire a fourth attorney for the county.

At the Feb. 7 board meeting, the County Attorney's Office provided the commissioners with a prosecution caseload study done in 2015, as well as the 2016 case numbers and information regarding external technology changes.

Dearstyne believed these studies reflect the need for additional duties of clerical staff, which were hired last year, and an increased need for a fourth county attorney as well.

"Cass County did an in-detail study of what e-Filing does to caseload time management for the county attorney's office specifically and it shows a need for additional staff," Dearstyne said.

Dearstyne also included documentation as to what other county attorneys are doing.

"It clearly shows our office having a lot more appearances than other attorney's offices," he said.

In 2016, Dearstyne made a total of 1,901 court appearances. Assistant County Attorney Johnathan Frieden took his position in March 2016 and made 949 court appearances, while Kris Peterson-Lahr appeared in court 1,879 times.

In comparison, Beltrami County Attorney Annie Huseby made a total of 375 court appearances in 2016 and Cass County Attorney Chris Strandlie appeared in court 297 times. His assistant attorneys made a total of 1,381 court appearances combined.

According to Dearstyne, Beltrami County has nine attorneys on staff and Cass County has a total of five attorneys.

"The number of appearances that have been made compared to some of the other offices, mine alone are way higher than any of the other county attorneys and surrounding offices," Dearstyne said. "Which limits my time to be able to supervise my staff."

"Other county attorneys are not appearing in court because they are taking care of the business of the board and other county department business and civil cases as opposed to the criminal caseload," Frieden added. "Mr. Dearstyne is doing both of those as well as myself and Miss Peterson-Lahr."

Frieden asked that the commissioners take a close look at the Hubbard County caseload needs and the fact that whether the number of attorneys employed by the county is based on the number of judges there are or the number of caseloads. Either way, he said, Hubbard County is on the low end right now with only three attorneys

"I can tell you from personal experience that's it's tough to get all the work done," Frieden said. "It's tough to know what we're doing when we're talking to county departments as far as being able to really spend the time researching it. We're doing it but our ability to get our job done is taking a hit based on our staffing needs."

"It comes down to whether or not we are able to provide the service to the county departments as well as prosecuting the criminal cases which is most of our caseload," Dearstyne said. "We've got to do something. We have a higher attorney need."

The commissioners questioned whether or not it would be beneficial to contract out services to outside attorneys on a case-by-case basis.

Dearstyne explained that it would be more costly to the county to contract the services of another attorney outside of the county as opposed to hiring a new county attorney because it would not only cost the county wages but travel expenses as well.

He added that attorneys within Park Rapids would not be willing to attend to county business as it could potentially present a conflict of interest.

There was also discussion regarding hiring an attorney on a part-time basis. Dearstyne explained that, in the past, money was invested in part-time employees that eventually left for other counties that offered them full-time hours and benefits.

Consistently, the county attorney's caseload is going up, according to Dearstyne. He explained to commissioners that changes in technology and other county departments were factors to an increase in the workload for his office.

"In 2007, when I took office, there were three child protection workers and one supervisor so there was four total. Today, there are seven workers and the supervisor position is vacant," he said. "Their numbers have increased and that increases our numbers as well. The same way with law enforcement. We now have two investigators with the sheriff's office as opposed to one and that has increased our caseload dramatically."

"I have no doubt that you need some additional help. I think we need to take care of business in Hubbard County and right now we have stuff that isn't being taken care of because you guys don't have time," Commissioner Cal Johannsen told Dearstyne. "I'm of the mind that we should go ahead and authorize the fourth attorney."

The commissioners unanimously voted to hire a fourth attorney for the county on the condition that if county business still goes undone, they may revisit the decision in the future.

"It's not a small amount of money that we're talking about and we need to be fiscally responsible, and I think that we need to keep an eye on it," Johannsen added.

"I think the shortfalls that we do have could be eliminated as soon as possible so that these different departments are getting things done in a timely manner," Commissioner Ed Smith added. "We'd like to see that everybody is getting everything done as soon as they possibly can."