February 1, 2014
New county attorney relishes job
Karen Howe steps into the position as the first woman to hold the job
Newly appointed County Attorney Karen Howe comes to the post amid a contentious debate over how the county should handle its assigned counsel program, but she says that a month into the job things are going smoothly overall.
Howe sat in her office Friday and reflected on a law career that has spanned over two decades.
As county attorney her responsibilities include settling contract disputes and interpreting statute.
With past experience both as an assistant public defender and an assistant district attorney, Howe said she brings to the seat her comfort in a fast paced environment and the ability to think on her feet.
Howe, originally from Steuben County, graduated from Syracuse University College of Law in 1989 and came to Cortland County in 1990 to work as an assistant public defender, where she stayed until 1999. She then served as an assistant district attorney from 2000 to 2013.
She says the job of county attorney is just the next in a line of posts serving the Cortland community.
Howe resigned from the District Attorney’s office last year to run for the new Cortlandville Town Justice spot that was created to help Judge Fran Casullo with a heavy workload.
The seat went to David Alexander and Howe said she was approached in mid-December by several members of the Republican Party asking her to seek the seat of county attorney, saying there was a desire for change in the county.
Howe was appointed to the seat at the Jan. 2 reorganizational meeting by a 13-4 vote, replacing former County Attorney Ed Purser, whom Howe said she personally likes and respects.
Howe is the county’s first female county attorney, a fact which she said surprises her but not a topic she wanted to dwell on.
“I don’t think it’s a factor,” she said of the county’s strong female presence in government in 2014, with the county Legislature chaired by Susan Briggs (R-Cortlandville).
Howe comes to the seat at odds with County Administrator Martin Murphy over the way the county should handle its assigned counsel program.
Howe is advocating for an independent assigned counsel administrator and Murphy is saying the county is handling that duty with no problems through the County Attorney’s Office after duties were transferred there last year.
An assigned counsel administrator distributes to local attorneys the cases of defendants that the Public Defender’s Office cannot represent because of a conflict.
At the Jan. 23 legislative session, Howe gave a presentation on why the county should have an assigned counsel administrator that is separate and distinct from the Public Defender’s Office or the County Attorney’s Office, saying it is a conflict for either office to handle the assignments.
She said the difference of opinion between herself and Murphy is just that and not something either takes personally, so it will not get in the way of their working relationship.
Howe is meeting regularly with a committee of the Cortland County Bar Association to discuss the details of how an assigned counsel administrator could be implemented in the county.
“The administrator would have no allegiance to anyone in the assigned counsel or the Public Defender’s Office,” she said. “It would be completely independent, that’s the idea.”
Howe could not give a time frame for when such a program might be implemented.
In the course of her regular duties as county attorney, Howe said her days vary. She might have to attend legislative subcommittee meetings or she might meet with other lawyers or legislators on county issues or she might have to deal with insurance or personnel topics.
She is continuing to operate her private practice on Port Watson Street, which specializes in family and matrimonial law. She said she regularly puts in 60-hour work-weeks between both obligations.
Howe said she always enjoyed practicing law and is not fazed by the appointed nature of the job and the fact a new legislative body holds the position’s fate in its hands every two years.
Howe said she has previously experienced jobs where she could be replaced, citing her time in the District Attorney’s Office. She saw three different district attorney’s during her tenure, she said.
Howe, who has been married to her husband, Bill, for 21 years, said she enjoys gardening when the weather is nice.
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