Wright County wins in appeals court, state auditor continues fight

By John Holler

Contributing Writer

For the better part of the last year, Wright County and two other Minnesota counties have been used as test cases by State Auditor Rebecca Otto in her ongoing dispute with the Minnesota State Legislature over the scope and extent of her powers. At the recent meeting of the Wright County Board, Assistant County Attorney Brian Asleson gave the board an update, stating that, just as the three counties had largely won a victory in district court early this year, they won another round in the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

“It’s good news,” Asleson said. “Last Tuesday the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued a decision upholding the ruling by the Ramsey County District Court judge in the Office of State Auditor litigation against Wright County, Becker County and Ramsey County. Their ruling basically made three findings. One is that auditing counties is a core function of the state auditor. We tend to disagree we that. We lost on that one, but it was the same ruling as the lower court. The rulings we won on are that the statute change in 2015 that allows counties to choose to use a private auditor did not take away that core function from the state auditor’s office. The third ruling being that the statute change that allows us to opt out and use a private auditor does not violate the single-subject clause of the State Constitution.”

One of the sticking points for the judges as both the district court and appellate levels was the legality of laws that are grouped together in omnibus bills – large packages of separate and disparate bills clumped together, typically hastily at the end of a regular session or in a special session.

“There’s a lot of case law out there on these omnibus bills where there are many things lumped into the bills,” Asleson said. “In this case, the court upheld the fact that this was a properly-adopted law in 2015.”

The three judges voted 2-1 to uphold the lower court decision, with the dissenting judge citing that, if all counties in Minnesota went the less expensive option of farming out their audits to private firms, it would severely damage Otto’s budget and weaken her office.

However, in the ruling, the judges said that the Minnesota Supreme Court has the authority to act on such constitutional questions and it isn’t the function of the appellate court to render such rulings.

“The court of appeals is what they call an ‘error correction’ court,” Asleson said. “They’re looking to see if the lower court made mistakes in their rulings. Their decisions are based on cases that have been decided over the past 100 or more years. They were basically saying we can’t forge new laws.”

While both court victories are viewed as a positive for Wright County, the news wasn’t all good. As Asleson told the board, Otto has already stated she will continue the fight.

“The bad news to come out of this is that State Auditor Otto has said in news reports that she’s going to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court to appeal, which means more expense for counties like ours,” Asleson said.

The county hopes to get reimbursed for being forced to defend itself in court, but there were no provisions put in the 2017 legislative bills that became law. To date, Wright County has expended more than $54,000 to fight the lawsuit and Otto has used more than $250,000 in taxpayer dollars from her budget to continue the legal battle.

In other items on the agenda, the board:

Approved law enforcement contract rates between the sheriff’s department and several Wright County cities at a rate $72 an hour and $74.50 an hour for 2019. Both rates represent an increase of $2.50 an hour for each of the two years over the current rate. All cities in the county contract for hours except Annandale, Buffalo and Howard Lake. The approval led to a contentious debate between Commissioner Darek Vetsch and Captain Todd Hoffman of the sheriff’s department. Vetsch asked if there was a full analysis done on all the associated costs with the contracts. Vetsch has been critical of how the sheriff’s department and led Hoffman to say, “Making some of these statements after the fact isn’t helpful.” The two also had a verbal altercation following the meeting in the presence of the other commissioners and staff.

Authorized signatures on a contract with John A. Dalsin & Son, Inc. in the amount of $433,000 for the replacement of the roof at the old Public Works Building. The roof was severely damaged during a storm earlier this spring.

Set a series of owners committee meetings to discuss stages of the construction process for the new courts facilities building – 12:30 p.m. Monday, June 19, 12:30 p.m. Monday, July 17 and 12:30 p.m. Monday, July 31.

Scheduled a committee of the whole meeting for 11 a.m. following the June 13 board meeting to discuss the process of filling a vacant lieutenant position in the sheriff’s department.

Schedule a committee of the whole meeting for 10:30 a.m. following the June 27 board meeting to discuss the level of authority of County Coordinator Lee Kelly. Board Chair Charlie Borrell said county business would run smoother if Kelly was given more authority from the county board to approve non-controversial day-to-day business.

Approved a mast partnership contract between the Wright County Highway Department and the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The current contract was set to expire June 30. The new contract will run through June 30, 2022.

Referred discussion of proposed fee changes in from the county’s Health and Human Services Department to the June 14 ways and means committee meeting.

Reappointed Laureen Bodin to a three-year term on the Wright County Personnel Committee of Appeals. Her team will run through June 30, 2020.

Referred discussion of the potential hiring of a project portfolio analyst position to the June 14 personnel committee.