MANKATO — Communications problems, a request for more money, and a notice of termination from Blue Earth County Attorney Pat McDermott may put an end to a five-year cooperative agreement between the county and the city of Mankato.
The county attorney’s office took on all of Mankato’s criminal prosecutions in 2016 after the city shuttered its legal department following the retirement of longtime City Attorney Eileen Wells. Under the agreement worked out between McDermott and the City Council, the county receives more than $400,000 a year for handling the city’s criminal prosecution duties — partly through direct payments by the city and partly through fines collected from convicted criminals that previously went to the city.
Assistant city attorneys and a municipal legal assistant transitioned into the county attorney’s office when the agreement took effect in 2016, and 13 months later both the city and county appeared satisfied with the cooperative venture.
“It’s a fair relationship,” then-City Manager Pat Hentges told the council in February of 2017. “And in my mind, it makes a lot more sense.”
McDermott agreed at the time that the system was more efficient and should save money for the taxpayers: “That’s the only reason I agreed to take this on.”
Less than four years later, the relationship had deteriorated. In October, McDermott sent notice to the city indicating an intention to terminate the contract in 12 months — the required notice period under the agreement.
The notice was sent while the county was under the mistaken belief that the city had a $38,000 outstanding bill from 2018 and a $15,000 outstanding bill from 2019. In fact, city officials say they didn’t receive an invoice for the outstanding balance until March of 2020 and paid the entire amount on May 1, 2020.
“Someone at the county coded it wrong,” Mayor Najwa Massad told McDermott Monday night.
But McDermott said the mistake would not have been an issue if Hentges had responded to questions he’d sent.
“I can’t get return phone calls, I cannot get return emails,” McDermott said.
McDermott said he also attempted to get Hentges, who retired Nov. 30, to discuss increased payments for the legal services to ensure county residents weren’t subsidizing work being done for the city — something that began happening to a limited extent in recent years.
“I wanted to get this taken care of before Susan came,” he said of new City Manager Susan Arntz. “It did not come to fruition.”
That’s when he brought the issue to the County Board, and a joint decision was made: “Since we were getting no response, we had no choice. We had to send the letter.”
The issue was discussed during Monday’s council work session, a meeting format where formal votes can’t be taken but where council members can try to hash out an informal consensus on matters. It appeared council members were leaning toward asking McDermott to come back with proposed fee increases or other changes to the agreement, but Arntz warned the city could be in a precarious position if October arrived and McDermott followed through on ending the contract.
“You’re creating a very tight timeframe for yourself ...,” Arntz said, recommending the council instead issue a request for proposals from legal firms interested in contracting to take over Mankato’s criminal and/or civil legal work.
McDermott said the council needn’t worry about being without prosecutors on Oct. 1 to handle first-time DWI cases, domestic assaults, alcohol-related crimes and other non-felony offenses that make up the bulk of the municipal criminal work.
“I’m not here to hang the city of Mankato out to dry,” he said. “... If we can’t get it done by October, we can do it like we did before — based on trust.”
Although Council member Mark Frost suggested sticking with the county attorney’s office, other council members seemed inclined to accept Arntz’s recommendation to see what options were available through a request for proposals from private legal firms while encouraging McDermott to join the competition.
“We’d love to have an RFP from you, Pat,” Council President Mike Laven said.
Massad agreed: “We appreciate everything you have done and hopefully will continue to do.”
The county attorney’s office, along with prosecuting all felony cases and most gross misdemeanor crimes in Blue Earth County, contracts with all 11 municipalities in the county to handle prosecution of less serious crimes. Mankato and Lake Crystal were the last to hand over criminal legal matters to the county, both doing so in 2016.