May 26—MANKATO — Despite an apparently strained relationship between the city of Mankato and the Blue Earth County Attorney's Office, the county lawyers may continue to provide criminal prosecution services for the city.
But the City Council has decided to first explore alternatives and also will seek a separate firm to handle civil legal advice.
Since 2016 when the city eliminated its legal department following the retirement of its longtime city attorney, County Attorney Pat McDermott has contracted with Mankato to oversee hundreds of annual criminal prosecutions. The agreement struck between McDermott and then-City Manager Pat Hentges also called for up to 10 hours a week of legal advice to the city for noncriminal matters.
The county attorney's office, which absorbed the remaining assistant city attorneys and staff previously employed by Mankato, receives more than $400,000 a year — partly through direct payments by the city and partly through fines collected from convicted criminals that previously went to the city. In return, county prosecutors, who already handle felony and serious gross misdemeanor cases, also prosecute lower-level criminal matters that are a municipal responsibility under state law.
After disagreements in recent years between the city and the county attorney's office, McDermott sent notice to the city indicating an intention to terminate the contract in October. The notice was sent under the mistaken impression that the city had ignored invoices for more than $50,000 in outstanding balances owed to the county. In reality, the city paid the required amounts shortly after receiving the invoices.
McDermott told the council earlier this month that the confusion could have been cleared up if Hentges had been more willing to communicate: "I can't get return phone calls, I cannot get return emails."
McDermott also was seeking more city funding to hire additional staff to manage the city's criminal cases. Without the additional funding, crime victims would not be as well-served as they should be or the county's taxpayers would need to finance the needed staff — improperly subsidizing legal expenses that should be covered by Mankato, according to McDermott.
Council member Mark Frost this week wondered why the city wasn't looking simply to mend fences with the county attorney's office.
"I guess I never heard Pat talking of any problems," Frost told Arntz Monday night, "and I haven't heard of you talking of any problems."
Arntz said the arrangement has largely worked well for criminal prosecutions, but the county is not providing the 10 hours of civil legal representation required by the contract. She mentioned seeking advice on a business application.
"The response we got is they didn't desire to provide a response," Arntz said.
McDermott told The Free Press on Tuesday that his response wasn't so abrupt and that the issue involved a request by a private attorney for advice on a planned business start-up: "It's not the role of a county attorney or a city attorney to give a legal opinion to a private attorney and their client."
The plan going forward could alleviate some of those tensions by separating criminal and civil legal representation.
The city is publishing a request for proposals from firms, along with the county attorney's office, to handle the city's criminal prosecutions. Another request for proposals is aimed at civil legal advice the city can tap when facing issues related to municipal government.
"By separating it, it gives the county a better opportunity (to compete for the prosecution job)," Arntz said.
McDermott said he anticipates submitting a proposal, largely because the attorneys and other staff now handing city prosecutions would be without a job if the work was awarded to another law firm.
"I really feel compelled that we should because we have employees we'd have to lay off or terminate if we don't continue," he said.
The city plans to accept proposals for each type of legal service through July 9. The proposals will then be reviewed and applicants interviewed by staff and a selection committee made up of Mayor Najwa Massad, Council President Mike Laven and Council member Karen Foreman.
The council plans to act on the recommendation by September with the new contracts taking effect Oct. 7.