BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – If Lee County Attorney Ross Braden can sway Lee County Supervisors, the county will move from currently having two full-time attorneys to four full-time attorneys with one focused solely on juvenile court cases.
Two weeks ago at a regular Lee County Board of Supervisors meeting, Braden approached the board about the possibility of transitioning retiring Assistant County Attorney Bruce McDonald’s position to a full-time position. McDonald is at part-time status with the county, as is Fort Madison Attorney Mio Santiago, because the two both hold private practices, McDonald in Keokuk and Santiago in Fort Madison. County code doesn’t permit full-time county attorneys to hold private practice positions while on county payroll.
Braden wants to convert McDonald’s spot to a full-time at the same $81,000 salary. Santiago’s assistant county attorney salary is $65,000. Braden said Santiago is working 20 to 25 hours per week on county cases. Braden also has Jonathan Stensvaag as 1st Assistant County Attorney. By converting McDonald’s position to full-time, that would give the County Attorney’s office three full-time attorneys.
He said in the long-term, he would also like to convert Santiago’s position to full-time and then at that point use one of the four full-time attorneys to handle just the juvenile cases throughout the county. Braden said he thinks he can attract a strong attorney to the county at Santiago’s $65,000 salary.
“I’ve taken some initial looks at the numbers and I think I can do it within my budget for the rest of this year,” Braden said. “Bruce’s last day with the county is Dec. 31 and I want to have someone picked and on the ground running conflict-free on Jan. 1. The person I have in mind is a seasoned attorney, not quite a Bruce, but a very good attorney and it would be my recommendation that he come in at Bruce’s current salary.”
Braden said the county needs a seasoned attorney to fill Bruce’s shoes.
“Bruce is a workhorse and is working almost full-time hours. and losing him is going to be a big blow to our office as far as having to absorb that caseload,” Braden said. “It only makes sense, in my opinion, if we can get a full-tme person with experience for the same amount we’re paying Bruce, we should do that. It’s already in the budget.”
He said the board has the authority to determine what staffing looks like in the county as well, as the budget for the department.
“Ultimately they get the say in the number of staff we have and it rests solely with them as far as restructuring the office to how many deputies I get and what amount of money they’re willing to allocate in the budget for that,” Braden said. “Our case load, in my opinion, is such that it really justifies needing the full-time help and that will make for a stronger, more balanced, cohesive office. That would mean these full-time attorneys’ sole focus would be county work and prosecution and it takes out the possibility for running a private practice which can be time demanding, as well.”
He said if the board does allow him to transition Santiago’s part-time position to full-time, he would open that position to applicants. If the board approves Braden’s plans, there would no longer be any part-time county attorneys on county payroll.
Supervisors indicated on Tuesday that they weren’t sure how the budget would look for the 2019-20 fiscal year. Since two of the supervisors, Don Hunold and Rick Larkin, were absent, Supervisor Ron Fedler wanted to table the discussion until all five board members could be part of the discussion.
Supervisor Gary Folluo was concerned that making the move would require additional funding in the next fiscal year and wanted Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise to see if Braden could be available at the next meeting to answer some more questions about the move.
Braden said he may make a request for additional funding in the next fiscal year, but it wouldn’t be a large request.
“I don’t think I would be asking for any more than $5,000 as it really depends on who I would get. If I ask for another $5,000 it might be to add on $2,500 each because I want to pay them well enough to stay in Lee County. We pay our part-time better than full-time assistant attorneys in other counties,” Braden said.
Des Moines County currently has six full-time attorneys in that county attorney’s office with a county population of 39,400. Lee County currently has one full-time attorney and two part-time attorneys for a population of 34,200.