MOORHEAD — Moorhead City council members gave the go-ahead Monday, Dec. 10, to establish a city office to handle prosecution of traffic violations and lower-level criminal offenses.
After a monthslong struggle over a new contract with the Clay County Attorney's Office, which previously handled the misdemeanor cases, the council offered their strong support to the plan for the city to take over the duties.
City Attorney John Shockley said he has been working with City Manager Chris Volkers on the details of the transition. He said they discussed having a private firm take over the duties with other city law firms, but in the end thought the option to establish its own office was the most cost effective and best way to handle the switchover.
The plan so far calls for a lead prosecutor, an assistant prosecutor, a paralegal and an administrative assistant to work in empty office space in the city's police department. Shockley's office would provide backup in case assistance is needed during vacations, turnover or if other issues arise and because he said they didn't want to "overhire" staff.
Shockley also said because there was a backlog of 100 to 200 cases that "haven't been charged out" they wanted to get a lead attorney hired right after the first of the year, even before the contract expires.
The contract with County Attorney Brian Melton's office, which handles the more serious crimes, expires on Feb. 1.
The city council unanimously offered their endorsement and "full support" to the move.
The contract also affects other smaller communities in the county, including Barnesville, Dilworth, Glyndon and Hawley, which in the past have worked under the Moorhead contract for prosecution services.
Shockley said he foresees a similar arrangement and that they would be meeting with representatives from the four other communities on Wednesday, Dec. 12. As the office develops, he said he would like to see an advisory board established with representatives from each of the communities.
Currently, the city pays Clay County $342,000 per year for the prosecution services, but with the payments for their portion of the services from the four other communities, the net cost to Moorhead is $258,500. In addition, there is fine money paid, but the city didn't have that figure available.
Shockley said he realized details were sketchy but he wanted the endorsement of the council to move ahead, especially with the meeting coming up with the other communities.
"We should have a complete resolution to present to you in January," he told the council.
Council members Steve Gehrtz and Chuck Hendrickson were the first to offer their backing, saying Volkers and Shockley had their full support in moving ahead.
The council also was upset with an article in The Forum on Sunday that pointed out a letter from Melton, who is deployed with a Minnesota Army National Guard unit in the Middle East, where he said the two sides couldn't agree on the cost of providing the prosecution services. Melton singled out Volkers and the city for "mismanaging" the contract talks.
For their part, almost all of the council members made a comment saying that was not the case and praised Volkers for her work.
Council member Joel Paulsen said it was a "disservice" that such comments were published in the paper.
Council member Brenda Elmer strongly stated that there "certainly was no mismanagement" in the contract discussions.
In the article, Volkers said she was simply trying to get the best deal for the city and its taxpayers and that she wasn't pleased that Melton had turned it into a public battle.