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August 5, 2009

 

Panel suggests county attorney changes

Committee recommends having advisory board pick future candidates for the post

By CATHERINE WILDE
Staff Reporter
cwilde@cortlandstandard.net

A committee reviewing potential changes to the County Attorney’s Office has finished its work, recommending a nonpartisan advisory committee select future county attorney candidates.
But the Law Office Advisory Committee failed to decide on whether the position should be made full time.
The Personnel Committee will discuss the committee’s recommendations when it meets Aug. 14 and decide whether to forward the recommendations to the full Legislature.
The Legislature could then incorporate the recommendations into a permanent plan for the office by amending the Legislature’s Rules of Order.
The six-member committee, which formed May 14 and met for the third time Tuesday, also suggested the county continue to keep Department of Social Services legal work separate from the County Attorney’s Office.
Much of the discussion Tuesday focused on changing the position to full time.
County Administrator Scott Schrader gave his input to the committee Tuesday. He said the move would cut down on the approximately $291,000 in outside legal assistance fees the county paid in 2008.
Schrader said a full-time county attorney could handle litigation claims, which cost the county $46,000 in 2008.
But Schrader conceded that conflict attorney fees may be incurred when the county attorney has a conflict and cannot handle a case. He also said the expense would remain for hiring someone experienced in labor matters to handle workers compensation caseloads.
But Schrader, and committee members Larry Cornell (R-Marathon and Lapeer) and Gene Waldbauer (R-Cortlandville) think the county would benefit from having a full-time attorney.
Sandy Price (D-Harford and Virgil), John Troy (D-1st Ward), Tom Hartnett (D-4th Ward) and Legislature Clerk Jeremy Boylan also serve on the committee.
Waldbauer said he thought investing in a full-time county attorney would be a smart move.
“If it could be a benefit, even if it costs more, to have a full-time guy, how could we not do it,” Waldbauer said.
Cornell said since the county government operates full time, it should have legal council available all the time. County Attorney Ed Purser works 17.5 hours a week in the position, which carries an annual salary of $53,666.
“I have been here 10 years and there have been times I have come in wanting legal advice and it has not been available,” Cornell said.
Boylan, Price, and Troy, were not convinced, saying they wanted more evidence of the benefits of this change.
Assistant County Attorney Liz Burns said it would be hard to hire a full-time county attorney for a two-year term because most attorneys would not leave a private practice for a job guarantee of only two years. Burns said state law is clear in dictating that the term of the county attorney cannot exceed that of the Legislature, which in Cortland is two years.
But Schrader thinks the county can challenge this law because the 1972 law the county passed creating the Legislature, gives the Legislature the power to appoint department heads and decide their term.
This would have to be defended in court, however, and Schrader said depoliticizing the appointment of the county attorney is the most important thing.
All the members, besides Boylan who abstained because the rules also pertain to the Legislature Clerk, approved recommending changing the rules of order to allow an advisory committee to recommend the attorney candidate.
The committee directed Schrader to prepare the county attorney office’s expenses from 2007 to compare to the 2008 expenses he outlined at the meeting. This information will all be given for the Personnel Commitee’s consideration along with a report on the committee’s recommendations that Cornell is now preparing.

 

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