ROBIN HUEBNER REPORTS: Moorhead, Clay County can't reach deal on prosecution work; county attorney blames city's 'complete mismanagement'

Brian Melton and Moorhead City Manager Chris Volkers

MOORHEAD — This city is in a rush to determine who will take over prosecution of traffic violations and lower-level criminal offenses, after a falling-out over an agreement that’s been in place for nearly 20 years.

Clay County Attorney Brian Melton announced in a letter provided to The Forum that his office will no longer prosecute misdemeanor city cases for Moorhead as of Feb. 1.

The change will also affect nearby Barnesville, Dilworth, Glyndon and Hawley, which in turn have paid Moorhead for prosecution services. It does not affect the prosecution of more serious gross misdemeanor or felony crimes.

Melton emailed the letter from his post in the Middle East, where he’s deployed with a Minnesota Army National Guard unit until next fall.

In the letter, he said the two sides couldn’t agree on the cost of providing prosecution services. He singled out City Manager Chris Volkers for some of the blame.

“It is because of complete mismanagement on the part of the City of Moorhead and the City Administrator that this relationship and contract broke down,” Melton wrote.

Now, there’s “a very small window,” he said, for Moorhead to get its house in order.

For her part, Volkers said she was simply trying to get the best deal for the city and its taxpayers, and she wasn’t pleased that Melton turned it into a public dispute. “It was upsetting,” Volkers said.

Pam Foss, who’s serving as interim county attorney while Melton is away, said Volkers accused them of “making up” caseload numbers to bolster their request for more money.

Volkers denied that, saying each side simply had different numbers.

Foss wondered whether Volkers had been bluffing all along, as a negotiation tactic. “Then we called the bluff, and now they’re scrambling, which is unfortunate,” Foss said.

No contract since 2015

The last time a contract was drawn up between Moorhead and the Clay County Attorney’s Office for city prosecution services was 2015, and Melton said that's not for lack of effort from his office.

He tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with then-Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger, who left in 2016. Volkers came on board in January 2017. Over the next year and a half, the two sides met only a handful of times, to no avail.

Melton said even though there wasn’t a current contract, his office continued to provide prosecution services under the 2015 terms, because he didn’t want the city to be left without such services. That agreement had Moorhead paying the county $342,000 annually, which covered the salaries of two attorneys and two legal assistants to do city work.

In September, before Melton was deployed, the county proposed a three-year contract, asking for $431,000 in 2019, $511,000 in 2020 and $617,000 in 2021. Those rates were based on adding one new attorney or legal assistant each year.

The additional help is needed, Foss said, because staff members assigned to city cases have been working evenings and weekends for some time due to growing caseloads.

Other attorneys in the office, whose salaries are paid by the county, have even pitched in to help with the city work, she said, but there’s still a backlog of about 150 cases to be reviewed.

According to Melton, the American Bar Association recommends that attorneys doing city work handle about 400 cases per year.

He said the caseload from Moorhead and the other cities is about 2,600 — which means the two current attorneys each handle about 1,300 cases, or more than three times the recommended amount.

“We can’t continue to work for free and to work our attorneys to death,” Foss said.

‘We’ll figure it out’

The city caseloads in question include traffic violations and misdemeanors, such as DWIs, domestic assaults and thefts. Volkers disputes the county’s claim that those numbers are rising.

Many traffic citations, including those for no proof of insurance, can be resolved without an attorney’s help, and Volkers said the city could take those on.

The number of more complex cases that require an attorney has actually leveled off, she said, according to information provided to her by the Minnesota Judicial Branch.

Foss called those numbers unrealistic, and said Volkers must have requested open cases only, not overall cases.

Now, without an avenue for city prosecution, Moorhead is looking at options, including hiring a private firm to do the work. It could also set up its own city prosecution office, something Volkers said she doesn’t want to do.

She would like to negotiate again with the county, but the county attorney’s office is firm on its deadline. Melton said his office has extended deadlines before, with no movement by the city.

In the meantime, Foss said her office is trying to resolve as many cases as possible before Feb. 1.

She’s also seeing more defense attorneys ask that their cases be delayed until after that date. She speculated they believe they will have more leverage if the system is in any sort of disarray, and that some cases will be dismissed.

There are complicated logistics, Foss said, to setting up this kind of system, and Moorhead has less than two months to do so.

“We’ll figure it out,” Volkers said. “We’ll have to.”