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Fairmont hires prosecutor, civil attorney

FAIRMONT — By unanimous vote Monday, the Fairmont City Council secured interim legal counsel for both criminal and civil cases, but a City Code requirement to have the attorney present at council meetings split the votes, 3-2.

The need for interim counsel was brought about a month ago by the departure of Elizabeth Bloomquist, who had served as in-house city attorney for the past 30 years. Council members Tom Hawkins, Randy Lubenow and Ruth Cyphers pushed to eliminate Bloomquist’s position and contract with outside legal counsel, with Bruce Peters and Wayne Hasek supporting an in-house attorney.

The Martin County Attorney’s Office will handle criminal cases at a rate of $150 per hour during the six-month interim period. Terry Viesselman, Martin County Attorney for the past 25 years, said neither he nor his staff will receive a pay increase for the added work, but that his office can provide the needed legal services more efficiently and therefore cheaper.

“We know what those prosecution duties are,” he told the council. “I sincerely believe we can do it better than anybody else. Prosecution is what we do. It’s our expertise.”

Adam Hinz, assistant county attorney, has been reviewing the city’s cases and said about 70 to 80 of those cases require action. He noted that he still has to review about 40 reports and some of cases date back to 2012, beyond the statute of limitations for prosecution. Because he had yet to review all the cases, Hinz was reluctant to give a reason for the old cases but suggested that perhaps the charges were not appropriate for the crime or the case stalled waiting for additional information.

“Thanks for doing this,” Peters told Viesselman and Hinz. “We were kind of stuck between a rock and a hard spot for six months.”

To hire an interim attorney to handle the city’s civil cases, the city solicited letters of interest from 18 firms/attorneys in the state. Six were from Fairmont, with five from the Twin Cities area. Three were from Blue Earth, with one each from Austin, St. James, Windom and Worthington.

Of the 18 solicitations, the city received 11 responses with only three firms submitting a proposal. No Fairmont firms opted to submit a proposal.

A committee comprised of city administrator Mike Humpal, Mayor Debbie Foster and Hawkins reviewed the three proposals. An Austin firm and a Minneapolis firm each offered a rate of $200 per hour. The firm of Flaherty & Hood of St. Paul, which received the council’s approval, offered a rate of $125 per hour for the first 25 hours, then a rate of $145 per hour, both discounted amounts because Fairmont is a member of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

While council members agreed in unison on the interim attorney choices, they disagreed about Hawkins’ proposal to end the City Code mandate that the city attorney attend all council meetings.

“I think it’s a poor time to remove the city attorney’s presence,” Peters said.

“The reason I requested this is there’s virtually no cities that have this in their code,” Hawkins said.

He argued that the council can still require the attorney to be present at meetings “if we choose” and that taking the requirement out of the code would give flexibility to future councils as well.

“We’re losing nothing. It’s just basically housekeeping,” he said.

“Again, I don’t call it housekeeping,” Peters said. “I think this is a poor time to not require a city attorney to be at our meetings.”

“When we do a contract, we can require it,” Hawkins said.

“Somebody must have felt it was necessary to do it in the first place,” Hasek said.

Hawkins said he researched the matter and checked with the League of Minnesota Cities about other communities’ city codes.

“Virtually no other city does that,” he said.

“I don’t care what other cities do,” Peters said.

Lubenow suggested that removing the requirement to attend council meetings might allow other attorneys to apply.

Foster said two of the firms that responded cited their distance from Fairmont as an issue, but also stated they had conflicting commitments with other meetings on the same night as Fairmont’s council meetings. The mayor said she too had checked with the League of Minnesota Cities, and while the code requirement was not used by a lot of cities, it was “not necessarily a bad thing.”

On a motion from Cyphers and a second by Hawkins, the council voted 3-2 to instruct city staff to prepare an amendment to the code to eliminate the requirement for the city attorney to attend council meetings. A public hearing has been scheduled for the council’s next meeting at 5:30 p.m. June 24.

Hawkins, Lubenow and Cyphers, the same three council members who pushed for eliminating the city’s in-house attorney position last month, supported the code change, with Peters and Hasek voting against the proposal.

The entire issue of in-house versus contracted legal services has split the council and sparked some heated debate over the past two months. Fairmont resident Ernie Nuss spoke to the council at the beginning of Monday’s meeting and expressed his concern about their actions, even expressing sympathy to city employees.

“My concern is, in a very short time, my city has lost a great deal of credibility,” Nuss told the council.

Steven Sunde, a St. James attorney, also called out the council’s actions when he declined to submit a proposal for civil counsel. In a June 3 email to Humpal, Sunde said he was not interested in applying for the city attorney position although he would have enjoyed working with Humpal.

“Frankly, I am not interested in serving the City Council given its current make-up. From my perspective, there is absolutely no excuse for the manner in which the council treated my friend and colleague, Libby Bloomquist. Enough said,” Sunde wrote.

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