MOORHEAD — The Clay County Attorney’s Office has lately seen an unusually high amount of turnover that's coincided with chief prosecutor Brian Melton’s most recent overseas military deployment, according to a Forum analysis of personnel records.
Twelve employees, or more than half the staff, including eight attorneys, have left the office since last summer, when Melton announced he’d accepted a nearly yearlong assignment in the Middle East.
That turnover in six months is about equal to the number of departures in the previous four years, according to county records obtained by The Forum through a public data request.
Five of those employees took positions with the Moorhead city prosecutor’s office — newly established after negotiations for the county to continue providing prosecution services for the city stalled.
Melton has been away since September, and the vacant positions have since been filled. In his absence, chief assistant Pam Foss has held the role of interim Clay County attorney.
County documents point to a work environment made more difficult by Melton’s departure.
The Forum reached Melton on Tuesday, May 21, at his post in the country of Jordan, where he’s serving with the Minnesota Army National Guard’s 34th Red Bull Infantry Division.
Melton said a few employees who left may have been disgruntled, but that the focus regarding turnover should be directed at him, not Foss.
“It’s on me,” Melton said. “As the county attorney, I’m the elected official and I think it’s all about balance, trying to figure out what that right balance is."
Foss said at no point through the staffing changes has the office fallen down on the job.
“We’re getting the job done,” she said, adding that the office environment now is “better than ever.”
Melton puts the recent turnover into three categories: several attorneys making “dream career” moves, some employees leaving to deal with personal issues, and the rest, moving to work for the city of Moorhead.
He cited Lori Conroy, now working as an assistant attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota and Jenny Samarzja, now teaching at the University of North Dakota School of Law in Grand Forks, as examples of former employees moving on to dream jobs.
Samarzja left the county attorney’s office last August, and Conroy left in September.
Most of the employees who took jobs with the city of Moorhead left between December and February. Moorhead set up its own office to prosecute traffic violations and lower-level criminal cases, after a longtime agreement to have the county provide those services ended.
The falling-out became public when Melton sent a letter to The Forum in December, blaming the city for the breakdown in negotiations. Melton said the attorneys who left his office to work for the city did so for higher pay.
The Forum contacted most of the attorneys and legal support staff who left Melton’s office since his deployment, but those reached all declined to comment for this story.
Clay County Human Resources Director Darren Brooke was asked whether Melton's absence has had a negative impact on the office.
He said he couldn't answer that, because he didn't know if it was the only reason people sought other jobs.
"Several people left for better opportunities and only brought their dissatisfaction to our attention when they left employment," Brooke said.
Office environment 'more difficult'
A document from last fall obtained by The Forum from Clay County Human Resources indicated concern over the work environment in the office.
Dated Sept. 28, 2018, it details interviews conducted with six employees following what Brooke said was an unrelated complaint from another employee in the office. Most names are redacted from the document.
In it, Brooke writes, “Several interviewees stated that the work environment became more difficult when the County Attorney, Brian Melton, notified the office that he was going to be deployed for approximately one year.”
Foss admits the environment was stressful back then, because the office was understaffed and dealing with caseloads that weren’t manageable.
It’s why, during those failed negotiations with Moorhead, the county was asking the city to add another attorney to the staff roster, she said.
Melton said while there may have been employees who didn't "appreciate" Foss, he stands by his decision to put her in charge while he’s away.
“I think Pam was a good choice and somebody who had to deal with difficult situations that were placed on her, that wouldn’t be regularly expected,” he said.
Melton has been deployed four times during his military career.
Currently, he’s chief of staff for Task Force Spartan, which amounts to being the senior military advisor for the country of Jordan, he said.
His first deployment, to Bosnia, happened while he was an assistant attorney in the office.
The second deployment coincided with him being voted in as Clay County attorney in 2006. He was elected during the middle of a two-year stint in Iraq.
His third deployment, to Kuwait, occurred in 2011-2012, and his fourth and current assignment is expected to wrap up in July.
Melton was asked if he would be able to continue to balance the Clay County attorney’s job with his military career. “I would just tell you I think about it a lot, so I don’t know if I could answer it any further beyond that,” he said.
He quickly added that he intends to be back in the county office sometime in August, after his deployment is finished.
Melton acknowledged it was difficult to lose people he'd worked with for 10 to 15 years, but the office is in good shape now.
"Most of that has largely been moved past," he said.
Employee departures from the Clay County Attorney’s Office
2019 ... 5, thus far
2018 ... 10
2017 ... 1
2016 ... 6 (included one attorney)
2015 ... 1
2014 ... 2
2013 ... 2
2012 ... 4
2011 ... 0
2010 ... 4
2009 ... 1
2008 ... 5
2007 ... 2
2006 ... 1
Source: Clay County