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Bathroom meetings don't reflect well on the county

The main floor vestibule serves as an attorney-client meeting room during court sessions. Members of the Hubbard County Bar Association implored the county board Wednesday to give them some meeting rooms for confidentiality, and because 90 percent of all cases are settled outside the courtroom. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Steve Peloquin sometimes meets clients by the urinal in the men's bathroom of the Hubbard County Courthouse, unless their gender presents obstacles to entrance.

Public defender Jennifer Nelson uses the glass vestibules to meet and greet her clients.

Attorney-client privilege, not to mention decorum, is hard to maintain under these circumstances, the attorneys told the Hubbard County Board Wednesday.

The courthouse has always lacked meeting rooms for attorneys and their clients. Peloquin said since 90 percent of cases are settled outside the courtroom, those meeting rooms are needed now, not two years from now.

As the county prepares to move the Social Services Department above the county jail, needs for back-filling the two floors of vacated space are coming in more urgently than the county anticipated. Members of the Hubbard County Bar Association came to Wednesday's county board meeting in search of a solution.

"Now that you're in this mode of thinking about space," Peloquin began his short presentation.

The attorneys requested two to four small meeting rooms adjacent to the main courtroom where they could meet with clients.

"We have to get creative," Peloquin said of the present situation. "I use the men's bathroom, the corners, the vestibules. You have to be careful about attorney-client privilege. Can we do something pretty immediately?"

Other attorneys said there could be safety issues when opposing parties meet in the small lobby during contentious family law issues, or when victims have to confront their abusers.

He suggested bumping out the glass walls of the vestibule to install two small meeting rooms.

"If you have an artery bleeding you don't put a band-aid on it," commissioner Lyle Robinson noted. "You take a space too small already and put a couple offices in it..."

Robinson suggested consulting the architects who are currently overseeing the jail renovation to see if they could come up with a plan.

Nelson said she would like to conduct office hours in Park Rapids. The public defenders main office is in Bemidji.

She said she tries to schedule meeting rooms but it gets to be a juggling act. She'd like a space in the courthouse where clients could expect to see her.

Steve Johnson of Vetter Johnson Architects, said later in the meeting when he presented a project update that the meeting rooms were a possibility.

Johnson presented a floor plan of what the office space above the jail will look like.

Last week a busload of Social Services workers, two commissioners and the coordinator toured the Mille Lacs County courthouse, where Johnson did a similar project.

Commissioners Kathy Grell and Greg Larson said they came away with lots of worthwhile information and ideas about the pending renovation.

Cost estimates will be the next step in the jail process. Meeting with the attorneys about meeting rooms will be the next step in that process, the board agreed.

It's possible some of the old jail cells could be converted to meeting rooms, not the most posh of accommodations, but they would be a far cry from the urinals.

Sarah Smith

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

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