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Strand is leery of future lawsuits

John Strand said Cass County's countersuit against him has troubled him so greatly he probably won't challenge the government in a similar way again.

John Strand

John Strand said Cass County's countersuit against him has troubled him so greatly he probably won't challenge the government in a similar way again.

"I don't know if others would either," Strand said Tuesday, testifying on the second day of his trial against the county.

Whether the county's $39,000 countersuit against Strand was a justified claim to protect taxpayers or an intimidating backlash against public activism is one of the major questions at trial this week in Strand v. Cass County.

Testimony began Monday and is expected to last through Friday. The other major contention between parties - the one that led Strand to file his initial lawsuit in April 2003 - is whether or not the county ignored a public vote in the demolition of its old jail and sheriff's residence.

Todd Haggart, one of the county's trial attorneys, questioned how chilling the county's countersuit actually was toward Strand's activism.


Under cross-examination Tuesday from Haggart, Strand admitted the county had given him every opportunity to express his concern over the old buildings, most notably through four editorials in his weekly newspaper, High Plains Reader.

"You have not backed away from criticizing the county where you thought it appropriate, have you?" Haggart asked.

"No, I have not," Strand said.

Earlier, Strand said such a countersuit by the county "effectively puts a gun to the head" of someone who is exercising a legal right.

Strand, backed by several supporters in a citizens group, halted demolition of the old buildings for six working days by seeking a judge's temporary restraining order.

The county countersued for $39,000 in damages it said the delay cost.

Elizabeth Merritt, Deputy General Counsel of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., testified as an expert witness for Strand. She said she became involved in the case after Strand's group called for help.

Merritt said the county's counterclaim has an especially chilling effect on public advocacy for historic buildings because it came from a governmental agency.


"Nothing could be more intimidating to citizens," she said.

Attorneys for the county maintain the countersuit was compulsory, so it had to make the claim immediately or lose its chance to recoup damages.

Haggart asked Merritt if the counterclaim should not have been asserted, even if the county had a legal and factual basis for it. He repeated the question several times when Merritt didn't answer directly.

When Merritt mentioned the importance of motivation behind the measure, Haggart asked her what she thought about a counterclaim if it was motivated "simply to protect the taxpayers' pocket books."

Merritt said the potential chilling effect is the most important consideration.

"So the legitimate claim has to just be dropped?" Haggert asked.

"I don't characterize it as legitimate," Merrit replied.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Forster at (701) 241-5538

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