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Race for Hubbard County Attorney reaches commission

Nathaniel Welte addressed the county board Wednesday. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

The campaign for Hubbard County attorney got off on a somewhat confusing note Wednesday.

Introducing himself to the Hubbard County Board of Commissioners, Perham attorney and candidate Nathaniel Welte maintained he could do a better job than the current prosecutor.

However, Welte's opening remarks, due to the poor acoustics in the room, were heard differently by different people.

Welte actually said he was not before the board "to say that Don (Dearstyne, county attorney) is doing a horrible job."

But all the audience heard was the last part of the comment, making it sound like Welte had said Dearstyne was "doing a horrible job."

A collective gasp went through the audience behind Welte.

Deb Thompson, who records the official county minutes, said they would reflect what she heard: "I don't think Don is doing a horrible job."

Board chair Lyle Robinson said his impression, regardless of what was said was that Welte was saying, "he certainly could do better," adding, "that's why this meeting room is so poor."

Welte claimed the prosecutor's office's budgetary expenses are skyrocketing while prosecution of serious offenses has declined significantly.

Welte said he's obtained information from the Court Administrator that shows a 13 percent decline in serious case prosecutions since 2006, while the office expenses increased 53 percent during that time.

"That's not to say the office doesn't need a third attorney," Welte said of the staffing needs.

Dearstyne has been pleading for a full-time third attorney since Sharon Martens retired last spring,

The board has only allowed him a part-time prosecutor.

Welte told the board he has more non-criminal experience than the office currently has, along with "skill sets not represented."

He urged the board to "look at both applicants" closely for the position.

His appearance on the agenda was changed by Robinson. "We don't let political candidates on the agenda," Robinson told county coordinator Jack Paul, who placed Welte on the agenda.

The county won't give a platform to any candidate, Robinson said.

But he added the county can't control who appears during the "public comments" portion of a board meeting, so Welte appeared under that section of the agenda.

However, Robinson did ask the County Attorney's office if someone wished to respond and to appear at the same time.

Assistant County Attorney Erika Randall did attend the meeting but did not speak.

"I have the support of the majority of law enforcement," Dearstyne said in a later interview. "I think I've done a good job. Our end results of the cases we've prosecuted have increased dramatically, much more favorable to the state and to the public."

The County Attorney, seeking a second term, pointed out that he received a substantial sentence in a homicide case and was able to persuade two defendants accused of assaulting two dozen police officers to accept an upward departure of their sentencing recommendations.

Dearstyne said his office now reviews all search warrant affidavits and now wins 80 percent of those arguments without having evidence suppressed.

Dearstyne said he's not sure where the 53 percent increase came.

"My first year in office, 2007, I inherited a budget from my predecessor," Dearstyne said. The county had hired the third attorney but had not budgeted for it, he said, so Dearstyne's first year he ran 20 percent in the red.

He's been under budget since.

According to figures from the auditor's office, in 2010, the year as of today, is 42 percent over. Dearstyne has spent only 36 percent of his budget. His office brings in an additional $40,000 in revenue prosecuting city cases, he pointed out.

As far as prosecuting serious crimes, Dearstyne said the definition of what constitutes a serious crime has changed.

"That's not in my control," he said. "I'm not going to make up crime.

"I'm going to prosecute vigorously and successfully what comes across my desk."

And Dearstyne said 80 percent of the office workload is criminal work, so vast experience in civil case law may go unused.

Welte told the board he "is not looking for a mud slinging fight."

Reached after the meeting, Welte seemed startled that his remarks were misheard.

"I'm not campaigning because he's done a bad job," Welte said. "I'm campaigning because I believe I have a set of skills that I can bring to the county that would benefit the county. I'm certainly in no way attacking Don personally or his service to the county. I don't think that would be appropriate."

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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