County Board to hire attorney in dispute with Ford

On her first day in office, incoming St. Louis County Attorney Melanie Ford found herself facing a battle with county commissioners. The St. Louis County Board on Tuesday asked the administration to recommend an attorney to represent the board in...

On her first day in office, incoming St. Louis County Attorney Melanie Ford found herself facing a battle with county commissioners.

The St. Louis County Board on Tuesday asked the administration to recommend an attorney to represent the board in a dispute over Ford's annual wage and budget cuts made in her department.

Ford last week filed a 14-page document in St. Louis County District Court appealing a Dec. 12 board resolution that trimmed $100,000 from the 2007 county attorney's office budget. She's also challenging a salary of $95,125, about $40,000 less than what defeated seven-term incumbent Alan Mitchell would have earned this year.

Commissioners Dennis Fink of Duluth and Keith Nelson of Fayal Township asked the administration to have a recommendation on an attorney at next week's board meeting. A motion by Fink to hire an attorney passed 6-0. Commissioner Peg Sweeney of Duluth was absent due to illness.

The action is the latest in what has become a high-profile county issue.


Commissioners say there's been public misperception about the board's actions with Ford and the possibility of hiring Mitchell as a negotiator with health-care providers.

Several commissioners and Ford said they've received dozens of phone calls and e-mails on the issue.

"The perceptions that are out there don't reflect the situation," said Commissioner Steve Raukar of Kelly Lake. "I am optimistic that we could get this done without legal counsel. There's room to negotiate. But I don't appreciate that we're being put into a corner."

Several citizens spoke out Tuesday, saying that Ford should be given the chance to do the same work as Mitchell. They also said Mitchell shouldn't be rehired by the county.

"I can't believe what is happening here," said Dick Hallfrisch of Duluth, a county employee for nearly 31 years who retired about eight years ago. "I'm disturbed that the new county attorney is not going to be given a chance to willingly assume all the duties of the county attorney's office. And whichever way you guys are leaning, if you put this guy (Mitchell) back in service, I doubt it will stop there. If you guys drop your authority to administration to hire who he wants, I think you're wrong, very wrong."

Scott Cameron of Duluth, a former campaign manager for Ford, gave the board a petition with more than 100 signatures opposed to hiring Mitchell as a health-care consultant.

"It's an indication of cronyism in local government and is unacceptable to the citizens of St. Louis County," said Cameron. "If that's the way you want to do business, maybe you shouldn't be here."

Mike O'Donnell of Becker, Minn., a Teamsters Local 320 business agent, said people would see hiring Mitchell "as something that is fishy at best."


"I just find it odd that when they are raising taxes, they would create a new position," said O'Donnell. "If a prerequisite for the county attorney's job is to be able to negotiate with (health-care) providers, they should have made that clear. We don't need to be spending more tax dollars."

Nelson said board members for some time have talked with administrators about moving health-care negotiating responsibilities from Mitchell to the administrative arm of the county.

Mitchell wasn't required to perform negotiations with health-care providers but had been doing it for years, say board members.

"As the past chair of this board, in conversations with our county administrator, we discuss things every afternoon and we have talked for some time about moving health care into the arms of administration," said Nelson. "When we first asked Mr. Mitchell if he would do it, he said no. Later, he said he would consider it under different circumstances."

Nelson said written documents that could bring Mitchell to the position have been prepared but have not gone before the County Board.

County officials are looking at every option for health care, including moving away from a self-insured plan.

"We are looking for whoever will do the business in St. Louis County in the best and most efficient manner for taxpayers," said Nelson. "But do not tie our hands and tell us we can't do our business."

Commissioner Steve O'Neil of Duluth said that the issue hasn't looked good in the media. But O'Neil said he thinks it's good that so many public comments have been received.


"I think it's good that the public responded and said we should be above reproach, and we should be above reproach," said O'Neil.

Ford said after the morning board meeting that several county attorneys are overloaded with work and that the budget needs to be restored.

The criminal caseloads of some St. Louis County attorneys are three times the national average, she said.

Cameron said Ford should be given a chance to prove herself.

"I feel we elected her to do the same job as Alan Mitchell," said Cameron. "The public has spoken and the abject cronyism is coming to the surface. It's time to clean up county government."

LEE BLOOMQUIST can be reached weekdays at (800)368-2506, (218)744-2354 or by e-mail at .

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