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  • Last modified 142 days ago (July 5, 2017)

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County legal bills swelling

Staff writer

Marion County’s new county counselor position, begun as a way of clearing up lingering civil matters at a time of transition, is evolving into a larger and more costly undertaking.

Not only is the county paying an additional lawyer to handle civil matters that the county attorney used to handle.

It also is considering hiring the county attorney — for extra pay, as a private “conflict counsel” — to fill in for the counselor when the counselor can’t handle a case.

County attorney Courtney Boehm, who sought election to her $53,964-a-year position months before there ever was a county counselor position, asked Friday for extra pay to provide services that her position used to handle before her predecessor, Susan Robson, was hired as counselor.

Before stepping down in January, Robson was hired at $125 an hour to continue work Jan. 9 through Feb. 1 on several non-prosecutorial matters. She also was hired Jan. 17 to serve as special prosecutor in 18 criminal cases that Boehm otherwise would have handled. To date, she has not billed the county on an hourly basis for those duties but has billed the county a total of $1,250 a month for each month since January.

Robson’s official hiring as county counselor occurred Jan. 23. She was hired on a trial basis for six months, starting Feb. 1, at a flat rate of $1,800 a month, the equivalent of $21,600 a year.

Her separate monthly billing of $1,250, which the county clerk’s office says is done under contract, would if continued for the full year bring her annual pay from the county to $36,600.

Between Robson and Boehm, that’s a total of $90,564 for duties that used to be handled by the county attorney.

Her duties were to include providing legal advice on county matters, as she used to do as county attorney, plus attending all county commission meetings.

By unanimous action of commissioners Friday, Robson, who was not at the meeting, was hired to continue in that role under the same terms until the end of the year, at which time the job probably will be put up for bids.

However, her hiring didn’t happen until after Boehm came before the commissioners to ask that they hire her, for extra pay, to look into matters Robson could not.

“The county counselor is a new way that we kind of started this year,” commission chairman Randy Dallke said at the outset. “We’ve always went [sic] to our county attorney for things like this.”

But in this case, the matter at hand — potential condemnation proceedings to widen a narrow turn that emergency vehicle can’t navigate on Valley Rd., a short loop off Lakeshore Rd. on the east side of Marion County Lake — poses some unspecified conflict for Robson.

Boehm said she would be willing to fill in for Robson — at a price.

“It wouldn’t be as county attorney,” she said, “but as county attorney, I can take in private business.”

Boehm said that once the county appointed a counselor, legal responsibilities that used to be the county attorney’s “don’t just automatically come back because the county counselor has a conflict.”

“I was elected to serve as the county prosecutor,” Boehm said. “That job will always be my primary responsibility. Once there is a county counselor, the county attorney doesn’t do it.”

Despite saying that she already works nights and weekends to handle her prosecutorial duties, Boehm said she would have time to look into the condemnation matter — but only if it were private business submitted to the Hillsboro law firm, Cottonwood Valley Law Group, run by her and her husband, Josh.

“That’s not to say that I wouldn’t do the county counselor duties if they fell to me,” Boehm said, “but I think it would be a lot of work.”

She said that county clerk Tina Spencer had offered clerical support to lower the cost, but that this would cause difficulties with attorney-client privilege because the clerical staff would not be directly employed by her.

Ironically, commissioners then voted to go into closed session to discuss matters of attorney-client privilege with Boehm, who denies that she is the county’s counsel of record on this matter.

Afterward, when questioned why Boehm would believe she deserved extra compensation to perform duties that would have been hers at the time she stood for election, Dallke replied: “Isn’t that exactly what I just said?”

Informed that he had made no such statement in the open portion of the meeting, Dallke was asked whether this was something he might have said during the commission’s closed-door session.

Smiling, he responded: “Let me just say, you asked a very good question.”

If Dallke had made such a comment during the closed session, the criteria for removing the public from that portion of the meeting could not have been what was stated, and the session would have been illegal.

No decision was announced on whether Boehm would handle the matter, either as county attorney or as a private attorney.

Robson decided last summer not to seek re-election and filed instead to run for county attorney in Ellsworth County, where she planned to move to be closer to her mother.

She won an August primary there but in September informed Ellsworth County officials that she would not accept the job if elected.

She nonetheless won the general election there, receiving more than 80 percent of the vote over a write-in campaign for the incumbent she had defeated in August. He had been county attorney for more than two decades but recently had been accused of driving under the influence.

A different attorney ended up being selected as county attorney there, but the attorney Robson defeated was re-hired Jan. 10 to a newly created county counselor’s position, much like Robson’s.

Last modified July 5, 2017

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