Jefferson County Board - May 14th

By Steve Sharp:

JEFFERSON — The Jefferson County Corporation Counsel Office will receive one assistant corporation counsel position as the county transfers cases involving children in need of protection services and other related matters from its district attorney’s office to the domain of lead Corporation Counsel J. Blair Ward.

The decision to move responsibilities to Ward’s office and to provide him with an assistant to help with the cases was made Tuesday evening during the regular meeting of the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors for May.

Ward discussed reasons for the changes with the Daily Times Tuesday.

“Due to the increasing number of children in need of services, the expansion of other services provided by the human services department and the increasing number of cases prosecuted by the district attorney’s office — including the recently created Alcohol and Drug Treatment Courts — the human services department considered alternatives to hiring outside legal counsel to represent its interests,” Ward said. “Transferring certain duties from the district attorney’s office to the corporation counsel office will reduce the need for contracted legal services.”

Ward said the county board’s move Tuesday evening will also allow the district attorney’s office, which is understaffed by 2.4 attorneys, to allocate more resources to prosecuting criminal and other statutorily required cases, including juvenile cases.

“As things currently are, cases referred by the human services department are either referred to the district attorney’s office, the corporation counsel office or contracted through outside legal counsel,” Ward said. “This change would consolidate cases involving human services in the corporation counsel’s office, allowing for operational efficiencies and would also be consistent with how Dodge County and other surrounding counties operate.”

Ward said transfer of duties to the corporation counsel office requires the creation and funding of an attorney position in that office. He said this position is also necessary for the corporation counsel office to properly represent the county on cases such as mental health commitments, guardianships, protective placements and general corporation counsel work, which has been increasing every year.

“The Jefferson County Human Services Department, district attorney’s office and the corporation counsel’s office worked together toward this transition and agree that it is in the best interests of Jefferson County,” Ward said, “because it will allocate the resources necessary for each office to meet the continually increasing needs of the county.”

Prior to the board’s action Tuesday, staff positions in the corporation counsel’s office consisted of four full-time attorney positions and one paralegal position. The persons in these positions conducted legal action in areas including general corporation counsel duties, with an emphasis on mental health commitments, guardianships, protective placements and child support enforcement.

The costs associated with adding an assistant corporation counsel’s position are expected to be offset by the cost savings from reducing the need for outside legal counsel, reducing the length of time that children reside in foster care pending termination of parental rights and by grant funding.

Supervisor Dwayne Morris said the changes will not make termination of parental rights any easier than it currently is, but will create efficiencies in the system that will ultimately benefit children and others involved in disputes.

Ward agreed, telling the board the law will always make it difficult for parental rights to be terminated and the changes have been agreed to by all governmental parties involved.

“It is a transition that will benefit everyone,” he said.