Wilkin County hires new attorney

In the Oct. 19 meeting, the county board moved to terminate the contract of legal services with the county, effective in three months.

Wilkin County, Minnesota, hired again for its county attorney position following the resignation of Matthew Jorud, whose last day was Tuesday, Nov. 16. Joseph Glasrud of Big Stone County, Minnesota, will assume the role beginning Dec. 20. In the interim, Christopher Cadem was hired to assist with the caseload.

Jorud was with the county for a short time, replacing former county attorney of five years, Carl Thunem, in August. Jorud submitted his letter of resignation to the county board earlier this month, citing personal reasons that will require more of his external time and attention than the job would allow. During his brief tenure, Jorud transitioned the filing system to be paperless, a move that will hopefully smooth the onboarding of the new attorney.

Jorud initially approached the commissioners about the county’s high caseload at an Oct. 12 meeting. He had requested an administrative assistant position, but informed the county board an assistant attorney may be a better solution. Jorud said previously he didn’t have a sense of whether or not the large caseload would be a short-term or long-term issue. It could be short-term if the majority of the backlog is stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If it turns out it is a long-term issue and the numbers just are what they are, then we know at that point. But it’s going to be a high burnout until we get to that point and until we can get to a manageable caseload,” Jorud said at the Oct. 12 meeting.

The following week, Jorud submitted caseload numbers to the county board and provided input about hiring an assistant attorney. Jorud was not present at the Oct. 19 meeting, so commissioner Eric Klindt related Jorud’s concerns that they would not be able to find a part-time, or even full-time, assistant attorney.

At the time of the meeting, there were 202 open criminal cases — 135 were Breckenridge Police Department files, 50 were Wilkin County Sheriff’s Office files, 16 were Minnesota State Patrol files and one was a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources file. That means 3.3 percent of Wilkin County residents have an open criminal case. By comparison, 1.9 percent of the population of Traverse County, Minnesota, has an open criminal case.

Commissioner Jonathan Green said Breckenridge cases are being charged out at three to four times the rate of the rest of the county.

“We don’t have an attorney problem, we have a different kind of problem,” Green said at the Oct. 19 meeting. “I’m not seeing the need for a new attorney, I’m seeing the need for a new approach.”

A county attorney has the ultimate say in what cases are charged. Green, sole practitioner and owner of Green Law Firm, P.C. in Wahpeton, said not every case brought forward by law enforcement needs to be charged, but a county attorney may experience pressure to charge each one.

The city has had a contract with the county for legal services since 2017, Breckenridge City Administrator Renae Smith said. Previously, the county and city had shared attorney Tim Fox for 35 years, and he was on both the county and city’s payroll, Smith said.

When Fox resigned in 2016, the county and city proceeded with hiring their respective attorneys separately. Breckenridge hired Cynthia Clark and Wilkin County hired Thunem.

Clark resigned in 2017, at which point the city contracted out civil and municipal matters to Flaherty & Hood, P.A. and criminal prosecution services to the county.

Wilkin County Auditor and Treasurer Janelle Krump said Jorud was in favor of not renewing the contract with the city, a move which would decrease the workload of his role.

In the Oct. 19 meeting, the county board moved to terminate the contract of legal services with the county, effective in three months. Terminating the contract would presumably alleviate some of the caseload, Green said. The county must still charge felony and gross misdemeanor cases from the city, but misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor cases will be handled by the city.

“The vast majority of stuff that comes out of the city of Breckenridge is going to be your general theft, simple assault, DUIs. Those are all misdemeanor level offenses,” Green said at the Oct. 19 meeting.

The city did not respond to the notice of termination, but Smith said they understand the county’s reasoning. Breckenridge is currently in the process of hiring for a full-time city attorney who would assume the prosecution of civil, municipal and criminal cases.

Breckenridge offered the county the option to contract with their full-time city attorney for legal services if it was in the best interest of both the city and county, Smith said. The offer was brought to the Nov. 16 meeting, but the commissioners tabled further discussion on the matter.

The next county board meeting will be held Tuesday, Dec. 14 and the Truth-in-Taxation meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 2.

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