Commissioners question legality of county attorney appointment
By Kristen Miller
The Meeker County Board of Commissioners was divided when it came to the matter of residency for appointed county elective positions during Tuesday’s meeting, voting down a motion to seek the opinion of the Attorney General’s Office.
County Commissioner Dale Fenrich (District 2) brought forth a question as to whether or not Meeker County Attorney Tony Spector vacated his oath of office by not being a resident of the county. Spector, who previously worked at a Plymouth firm, was appointed last year by the former board to fill the remainder of the term held by former county attorney Stephanie Beckman, who left the position after being appointed district judge. Currently, Spector does not live in the county, nor has he stated whether or not he will run for the position when the term expires in 2014.
According to MN Statute Article 7 Section 6, a person 21 years of age is “eligible for any office elective by the people in the district wherein he has resided 30 days previous to the election.”
“It seems to be that . . . residency does become a condition of his office,” Fenrich said, suggesting the board seek an opinion from the attorney general to clarify the matter, now and for future appointments.
Meeker County Auditor Barb Loch informed the board that because Spector was appointed, the words re-elected and incumbent can not be used if he chooses to run for the office in the fall.
County Commissioner and board chair Mike Huberty (District 5) told the board that from the information received from the office of the Secretary of State, an appointment doesn’t have a residency requirement. “I think it’s a dead issue,” he said, adding that if the board wishes to move forward with this matter it’s a “witch hunt.”
Huberty made a motion to drop the matter of residency, and County Commissioner Bryan Larson (District 3) seconded the motion. It was later voted down 3-2 with Fenrich and County Commissioner Mike Housman (District 4) voting against the motion.
Housman noted that the e-mail from the legal advisor at the Secretary of State’s office also stated that the office doesn’t issue legal opinions. Housman added that he talked with Representative Dean Urdahl (R-Acton Township), who offered a different opinion on the matter.
Urdahl addressed the board, stating that it was a “gray area” as to whether or not someone who is appointed to an elective position should have the same qualifications as someone who files and is elected to office.
He also noted that when he sought the opinion from the House Research Department, a nonpartisan group, their advice was for the board to seek outside counsel for clarification.
Because this is a “gray area,” Urdahl said that as a member of the House Elections Committee, he is looking into clarifying the language in the statute to make the eligibility requirements more clear.
Spector took the opportunity to address the board and noted that he was concerned in the matter in which this was brought up and sought his own legal counsel an attorney specializing in election law, Alan Weinblatt of Weinblatt & Gaylord of St. Paul. Weinblatt offered his opinion in which he noted there was no residency requirement for the appointment of an elective position.
Spector told the board that if this opinion didn’t suffice, it was welcome to do one of three things hire an attorney, seek another county attorney’s counsel, or write a letter to the attorney general.
He pointed out that this matter diverts his attention from his other office duties, but said he would be willing to draft a letter to the attorney general and courtesy copy the board.
County Commissioner Beth Oberg (District 1) noted that in her opinion Spector has done a “good job” for the county, but she wasn’t against getting an outside opinion to remedy the situation.
Oberg also told the commissioners this has become very personal having received a lot of e-mails on the matter and, although she was in support of Spector, she wanted an answer to this.
Oberg also noted she was there when the lame duck board approved the hiring of Spector. In her opinion, she believed the the attorney general would determine that no rules were broken, and the board would then have to wait for new legislation.
Fenrich told Spector that in no way was this directed at him, but that this was something he wanted to see clarified for now and in the future, as well.
“The entire process is directed at me,” Spector replied.
Oberg made a motion that Spector write a letter to the attorney general with the question of residency, though she later withdrew it after Housman suggested Spector draft the letter and bring it back for board approval.
“I think we’ve wasted enough of Tony’s time,” Larson said, adding that “there are some people who don’t have enough to do.” Larson commended Spector on the good job he has done for the county.
Housman reminded the board that this wasn’t a performance issue, but a clarity issue, pointing out that it was common sense that a resident of Dassel couldn’t be appointed to serve on the Litchfield City Council.
Fenrich said he was comfortable having Spector write the letter and there was no use debating the issue, because the answer is unclear.
Fenrich’s motion to have the question submitted to the attorney general as to whether there is a residency requirement for anyone appointed to an elected office failed, 3-2, with Oberg, Larson, and Huberty voting against it.