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Launched in 2014 by journalist Sean Baker, Med City Beat is an independent news source covering government, business and culture in Rochester, Minnesota.

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Internal discord triggered race for Olmsted County Attorney

Internal discord triggered race for Olmsted County Attorney

People interact with the Olmsted County Attorney’s Office during the toughest parts of their lives. They are either victims, defendants, or otherwise affected by the intervention of law.

Like social workers and peace officers, the employees inside the office wade through second-hand trauma to advance public safety and health. The office does more than prosecute crimes; it provides support and advice to back up the work done by adult protection, child protection, and law enforcement.

County attorney offices are gaining visibility nationwide this election cycle as municipal governments become targeted by larger partisan actors. For instance, philanthropist George Soros, who believes there are too many incarcerated American citizens, is pouring money into small races across the nation, while the race for county attorney in Hennepin County is between a progressive with a DFL endorsement and a progressive without one.

Here in Olmsted county, though, the dynamics are more intimate. There are no external influences like money or party at play. The two men at the center of the race, incumbent Mark Ostrem and his challenger, senior assistant county attorney Geoffrey Hjerleid, both work in the office daily.

Both candidates come from criminal defense backgrounds. Both advocate for relatively progressive policies. Both men also agree that the office is supposed to be public-facing.

So, why is there even a race? Hjerleid’s run was fueled by a split over policy and a belief that Ostrem had lost sight of how to keep the office running smoothly, in favor of pursuing more public-facing, headline-grabbing initiatives, according to nearly half a dozen sources we spoke with.

One factor made itself clear earlier this month, when Local 1436 of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees — which consists of all non-supervisory assistant, associate, and senior county attorneys — announced its endorsement of Hjerleid.

Unrest in the office

Ostrem lights up when highlighting the collaborative work he participates in. He talks about brainstorming sessions that result in practical outcomes on topics like mental health and addiction: big problems being pushed off onto local governments. He’s worked to find a language shared between hospitals and courts, so people can get the info they need. Under his tenure, he says, both law enforcement and child protection workers feel more comfortable approaching the office for advice before things go off the rails. He points to the Child Advocacy Center as an example of what he’s accomplished. Now, he’s working to change perception on human trafficking.

All the while, though, contends Hjerleid, back in the office, “We really saw a deterioration in management, deterioration in leadership, and changes were suggested and they didn’t happen, and a lot of the attorneys, and I saw it, just did not feel supported in any number of ways.”

He says those ways include professional development, training, uneven discipline, and favoritism. Hjerleid says an increase in this behavior spurred his decision to run.

Beyond matters of professional development and case assignments, we spoke to three sources, two still within the office, who told us about unaddressed complaints of harassment, both sexual and otherwise, allegedly carried out over a ten-year period by a member of the office’s management staff. The complaints continued, the sources told us, throughout Ostrem’s tenure, until earlier this year, when the employee left the office.

According to our sources, it was common knowledge that people complained frequently, but nothing was done. The sources spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, citing potential risks over their employment status.

“We all knew people were going to HR and nothing was happening. And then he just got his anger, so, people were fed up, and kind of stopped going down there because nothing would happen to him,” said one source within the office. “This made employees feel as though “you meant nothing to HR, or to management. They didn’t care this was happening to you. You didn’t want to go to work.”

“I don’t have anything to say [about] who would be the better county attorney,” added the source. “I just think what he let us go through for so long; it’s time for him to go.”

When asked about the alleged behavior, Ostrem said, “I can’t talk about that because it’s a private, non-public issue.”

‘A weird dynamic’

The county attorney is a public figure by necessity, and the office has expanded into the public eye under Ostrem with programs like drug court and the Child Advocacy Center. At issue in this race is whether or not Ostrem furthered that mission at the expense of the office’s internal culture. While the union vote might suggest so, Ostrem contends that the rift is not as pronounced as the union’s endorsement may indicate.

“We need to talk about the issues in support of public safety. And trying to suggest that our office is divided, is, frankly, further dividing the office,” said Ostrem. “Geoff is a lead attorney of the criminal division and I expect him to do some level of supervision and leadership continuing on our policy. And yet, he’s advocating against some of my policies. So, it just, it’s just a weird dynamic. Frankly, I feel sorry for the people that work in our office because they just, they’re struggling. That’s been a challenge for us.”

For his part, Hjerleid contends that he must point out the differences between Ostrem and himself; otherwise, he’d have no reason to run.

“There could be a perception out there there’s this sort of mutiny. Not at all,” said Hjerleid. “When the ship is on the shoals, or nearing the shoals, it’s not a mutiny when the captain’s not on board. The captain’s ashore telling everybody about what great voyages we’re going on. Once the ship is right and everything is running really, really smooth, then all those outside projects and being a public official, then you can address those things. And, quite frankly, you can do them at the same time.”

That ability to bring the work of the office into the larger community is also a point of contention in this race. Should he lose, Ostrem says, the county will feel the loss of the relationship’s he’s built, sharply.

“Right now, Geoff does not have them,” Ostrem said in an interview last week. “He has worked with departments, but he has not worked with department and community leaders. That’s a huge difference. He may know how to do the job as far as the work, the line attorney work, the courtroom work, he’s never done the community leadership thing. I think that is probably the thing that stands out between us.”

Policy divide

The candidates also find themselves divided on a number of policy issues.

That is despite that fact, Ostrem says, that Hjerleid has been on the leadership team for the past few years — putting him in weekly management meetings and policy discussions.

“He’s been part of group that’s been forming this policy,” said Ostrem. “And that’s where his voice should’ve been heard, is if he thinks we don’t do domestic violence right, then tell us what are the ideas, what should we change about the policy?”

Hjerleid, however, contends there have been attempts to provide input. Those ideas, he says, have often fallen on deaf ears.

“You can make suggestion after suggestion after suggestion, but if you’re not listened to, and this is not only me, but if you’re not listened to, or if it’s not acted upon, or if it takes six months to make a decision that should take [not even] 15 minutes, you lose the incentive to bring those suggestions to the leadership,” said Hjerleid.

In the last year, the office has begun looking at its plea-negotiation policies on things like DUIs and domestic violence. That is where some of the main ideological divides surface.

Hjerleid says the first thing he would change is the county’s domestic abuse policy, citing the face that 25 percent of the county’s criminal caseload is related to domestic violence.

At present, county policy allows for certain offenders to receive a stay of adjudication rather than a conviction. The impact is two-fold: it gets cases through the courts faster, and connects offenders to appropriate therapy sooner.

Hjerleid says this counters Minnesota state statutes, which require more severe penalties for people who re-offend within five years. Because a a stay of adjudication is not a conviction, those second offenses might be considered firsts. The option also includes domestic abuse strangulation, a potential indicator of future danger.

“My policy on domestic violence is simple. Prosecute the cases. You prosecute the cases and do the best you can. We’re not going to reduce charges or offer lighter sentences unless that offender can demonstrate to us prior to a guilty plea, prior to negotiating that, that he’s a low-risk to reoffend,” said Hjerleid.

Another high-profile difference centers around the creation of a veterans court. Through his campaign, Ostrem has said he wants to set up a court that specifically handle the needs of veterans.

“Whether they be struggling with substance abuse, employment, or mental health issues, veterans will have access to a variety of services to help support them,” Ostrem’s website says of the concept. “The focus of the Veterans Court would be rehabilitation and support rather than outright sentencing with the goal of preventing future encounters with law enforcement.”

Hjerleid, on the other hand, argues that rather than establishing a single, high-profile court, the county should provide every veteran in every courtroom a menu of services and options. This way, veterans separated from the court by distance would not have to waylay entire days just to appear in court.

Of course, voters will ultimately be the judge of who gets to manage the office the next four years. In the lead up to Election Day, you can learn more about the candidates by visiting their campaign websites [Ostrem and Hjerleid].

Bryan Lund is a Rochester journalist covering politics and culture for the Med City Beat. Follow him on Twitter.

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