By John Holler
For the better part of the last year, Wright County has been in a legal dispute with State Auditor Rebecca Otto, having been named along with Becker and Ramsey counties as plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by Otto to assert the Constitutional powers of her office.
On Feb. 15, Commissioner Charlie Borrell, Auditor/Treasurer Bob Hiivala and Assistant County Attorney Brian Asleson attended a hearing of the State Legislature’s Committee of State Government Finance, where a pair of bills by lawmakers representing Wright and Becker counties — one by Representative Eric Lucero (R), Dayton, District 30B, and another by Representative Paul Marquardt (D), Dilworth, District 4B.
Borrell said he was unaware just how money has been spent to assert the authority of her office — a staggering number that continues to grow.
“It was pretty interesting,” Borrell said. “She has spent over $250,000 from her budget, which is paid by the taxes we all pay in, to bring this lawsuit and to appeal the decision at the district court. She’s cost us more than $40,000 — it’s $80,000, but we split that cost with Becker County – just for an outside attorney. We also have the costs from our own county attorney’s office. It’s been a fight we didn’t start, but we’ve had to pay for it.”
County officials still haven’t had explained why exactly Wright, Becker and Ramsey counties were named in the lawsuit. Part of their inclusion in the lawsuit has forced them to have county audit done through the State Auditor’s Office, tens of thousands of dollars more than the county would pay to have a private audit done, which is allowed by state law and at the heart of Otto’s ongoing lawsuit..
Asleson testified at the committee meeting, citing the reasons Wright County should be reimbursed for its costs of defending itself in court and both proposed bills call for reimbursement – the Lucero bill calls for reimbursement out of Otto’s budget, while the Marquardt bill asks for payment out of the general fund.
Otto, who has announced plans to run for governor in 2018, was grilled by the Republican committee members specifically about how she found $250,000 in her budget to finance the lawsuit without a reduction in service.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Asleson said.
The case was heard last summer in district court and the judge’s verdict was largely in favor of the three counties. Otto immediately announced she would appeal the decision to the state appeals court, which prompted a counter-appeal by the counties.
“It was a favorable decision in district court as far as we were concerned,” Asleson said. “The one issue that we cross-appealed on – the only issue where the two counties lost – was that we were saying auditing counties wasn’t a core function of the State Auditor’s office under the state Constitution. The Court said that, yes, it was a core function, but this new law that went into effect in 2015 that allows counties to opt out and use a private auditor doesn’t diminish core function.
“It’s kind of a side issue if you will,” Asleson added. “But, our attorney felt that, as long as we lost on that one issue, we might as well cross-appeal as long as she has appealed. It’s not like it added anything to our cost.”
On March 9, oral arguments by attorneys for both sides will be heard in front of the three-judge Minnesota Court of Appeals. The decision of the Court is typically rendered within 90 days, so where the case goes from there will be on hold until this summer.
As part of the hearing, Otto was asked why Wright, Becker and Ramsey counties were singled out, but, on the advice of counsel, said that because of ongoing litigation, she couldn’t answer that line of questioning. In filing documentation, the only mention of Wright County referenced a highly-successful driver/ticket-diversion program. While not something Otto’s office would sue Wright County over, there have been questions at the state level whether counties and cities have the legal authority to conduct such programs.
Otto did state at the committee meeting that she supports Wright, Becker and Ramsey counties being reimbursed because the issue effects all 87 counties in Minnesota. She added that the reimbursement should come from the general fund, not her budget.
There has yet to be a Senate companion bill, which is needed to be included in an omnibus bill – a bill from the House and Senate that has one big-issue topic as the crux of the bill and many smaller issues (like three of 87 counties being reimbursed for legal expenses) tacked on. That is commonplace in state government bills, but all require House and Senate inclusion.
As the cost continues to rise, currently at $84,000 and rising for Wright and Becker counties, being told that financial help is likely coming was good news to those who attended the committee meeting. It will take time and will likely be a figure considerably higher than the current amount, but to learn that the county likely won’t be stuck with the bill has been about the only good news to come out of this issue.
“We have no dispute with Rebecca Otto arguing the powers of her office with the State Legislature,” Borrell said. “We’ve maintained all along that this isn’t our fight. I’m just happy to see that we have people fighting on our behalf and I’m hopeful that one of the two proposed bills makes it through and the residents of Wright County don’t have to end up paying for a fight between the State Auditor and the State Legislature.”