By John Holler
For 12 years, Wright County has operated a driver diversion program called Drive Wright that allows drivers who are ticketed, but have good driving histories, to take the Drive Wright program to avoid having the ticket put on their record. At the recent meeting of the Wright County Board, Assistant County Attorney Brian Asleson informed the board of the potential for litigation under the program and set up a meeting to discuss the potential options.
Following the meeting, Asleson explained that he believes the program is legal and actually a benefit to participants, not a detriment.
“We’ve always maintained that it is a legal program due to prosecutor discretion,” Asleson said. “We’ve dealt with the State Auditor over the last two years doing our audits and they’ve flagged the program and raised a concern. Our office has responded to them with the rationale why we think it’s legal.”
The problem Wright County faces is that a bill tacked on to an omnibus bill was the direct result of a similar program that used money raised to pay for squad cars and other work-related items and in an ensuing court case, the county was found to be at fault and the program deemed illegal.
“The difficulty with this provision is that it was pushed through as an addition to a big omnibus tax bill by Rep. (Steve) Drazkowski from Wabasha County,” Asleson said. “That’s where this traffic diversion battle started several years ago. Some residents down there, including Drazkowski, sued the county, the county attorney and the county sheriff. They got a ruling from a First District judge that their program was an illegal program. But, we believe there are significant differences in our program.”
The new law could potentially take away some local government aid if someone successfully sued the county. That would impact county budgets, which has prompted the request to meet with the board.
“We felt it was time to get the county board involved,” Asleson said. “It’s always been a program that Sheriff Joe Hagerty and County Attorney Tom Kelly and our partners – MEADA and Safe Communities of Wright County – have felt is a positive for our county. Those are the four groups that formed Drive Wright. Because this could impact local government aid, we felt we needed to get the county board involved to discuss the options and potential impact.”
The program started in 2005 and in its 12 years has had approximately 12,000 participants. Typically, program participants are people without significant traffic records who are given a Drive Wright ticket instead of a standard moving violation ticket. Those who get the ticket have 30 days to sign up for the Drive Wright program at a cost of $75, which is less than the average speeding ticket and, if they complete the diversion program, the offense doesn’t go on their driving record. If they decline to take the program, they are issued a standard ticket.
As a result of having 12,000 people take that option, the program has brought in $900,000 and the sticking point is one key word in the legislation, which Asleson termed as “poorly crafted.” Despite not having the legislation passed until this spring, the law states that any city or county that has “operated” a program – potentially including past or present given the past tense usage of the word could be subject to losing local state aid.
“Honestly, given that wording, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they could go back that far and include money that was generated prior to the law being enacted,” Asleson said. “In Wabasha County’s case, they stopped their program once they got a court ruling two or three years ago. Whether or not this is aimed at them or affects all similar types of programs is what we have to sort through.”
Could the new law mean the end of the program? At this point Asleson isn’t sure.
“That’s a good question and, as of now, we don’t have an answer to it,” Asleson said. “That’s what we want to discuss with the county board. We’ve done this program and I don’t believe we’ve ever had a complaint from those who have been in the program. We’ve had 12,000 people go through the program and we believe it has been a good program for Wright County and improved safety on our roads.”
The board approved setting a committee of the whole meeting to discuss the matter at 11 a.m. following its June 27 board meeting.
In other items on the agenda, the board:
Authorized board attendance at a legislative update starting at 1 p.m. Thursday, June 29 and Huikko’s Bowling Center in Buffalo. The program is sponsored by the Wright County Economic Development Partnership and will feature Sen. Bruce Anderson and Reps. Marion O’Neill and Eric Lucero.
Was introduced to Kreitlow and Ford families, named the 2017 Wright County Farm Family of the Year. Their farm was founded in 1898 by August and Pauline Kreitlow in Middleville Township and it has been an operational farm ever since. The farm raises cattle and dairy cows as well as farm crops. The Kreitlow/Ford farm has been ahead of curve in farm management practices to optimize conservation management practices and conservation practices.
Referred to the budget committee the potential of hiring a ditch coordinator. The anticipation is to hire a ditch coordinator and would not replace the current ditch inspector. The item was referred for inclusion in the 2018 budget.
Authorized a property cleanup in the City of Monticello on Fairway Drive that has become a nuisance property. There was a previous cleanup of junk in the yard on the property, but there have been recent complaints of a foul smell coming from the property by neighbors. Given the heat of summer, the board approved the immediate cleanup of the property because the longer the wait, the worse the odor will likely become.
Adopted a resolution for the reestablishment of records for County Ditch 36. The county agreed to a lump-sum payment of $12,000 to Houston Engineering to reestablish the drainage records. Board Chair Charlie Borrell said that this will likely be one of many such proposals that will be coming to the board, since several county ditches have antiquated draining records that haven’t been updated in several decades and some of the ditch records are missing.
Authorized the backfilling of a lieutenant position in the sheriff’s department. The item had been laid over after Commissioner Darek Vetsch had concerns about the functions and placement of the position in the organizational chart of the sheriff’s department.
Approved an out-of-state travel request from the Information Technology department to attend the Hyland Onbase CommunityLIVE Conference in Las Vegas Sept. 11-15.
Referred to the next technology committee discussion of the county’s voicemail system, a sheriff’s department squad car/body cam project, an Office 365 update and a project portfolio listing future projects to be prioritized and completed.