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County addresses claim of conflict of interest

WORTHINGTON -- A trio of attorneys weighing in on a resolution before Nobles County commissioners on Tuesday made it seem like the board room had transformed into a courtroom.

WORTHINGTON - A trio of attorneys weighing in on a resolution before Nobles County commissioners on Tuesday made it seem like the board room had transformed into a courtroom.

The scene was the result of a request from Rinke-Noonan law firm seeking the county’s signature on a waiver of conflict of interest. The waiver was requested because Rinke Noonan attorney Kurt Deter is contracted by Nobles County to serve as counsel on public drainage issues.

However, Deter is representing petitioners in a request for improvements on County Ditch 11 - a request initially made to the Kanaranzi-Little Rock Watershed District in 2013, but recently transferred to Nobles County when the K-LR said it didn’t have the resources to handle the proceedings.

With Nobles County now serving as the ditch authority for CD11, it has contracted with attorney Bruce Sellers for legal counsel specific to the petition. Meanwhile, Deter will continue representing the petitioners.
Sellers said Tuesday he’s OK with the waiver, noting that the ditch authority will act primarily on the information in the engineering report. Nobles County Attorney Kathleen Kusz also said she approved of the waiver.

Sellers said there’s no question in his mind who Deter represents in the CD11 petition, and at no time has Deter represented anyone but the petitioners in the matter.

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“It’s certainly an issue that can be raised by any landowner that wishes to appeal,” Sellers acknowledged. He said the waiver would remedy any claims of conflict of interest.

Local attorney Jeff Flynn, hired by farmers opposed to the CD11 improvements, argued Tuesday that the waiver before commissioners misses the point. The conflict of interest, he said, exists in that the county trusts Deter as its legal counsel on all drainage issues - except for the CD11 project.

“I represent a number of farmers and landowners who are on the receiving end of this tile,” Flynn said. “The conflict is between my clients and Kurt Deter’s representation of this board.

“Kurt Deter is probably the foremost attorney in Minnesota on drainage issues and I assume that’s why you want him to represent you,” he added. “It doesn’t matter that the board waives a conflict of interest. How can my clients have a fair hearing on an equal playing field under these circumstances … when your lawyer is representing one of the clients? The appearance of impropriety is at the ultimate level here.”

Flynn said the county commissioners, as the ditch authority, have expressed their confidence in Rinke-Noonan and Deter, and that’s unfair to the people opposing the CD11 petition. He suggested a solution would be to send the petition process back to the K-LR, which has no working relationship with Deter.

Sellers responded by saying his duty is to the county board and he will provide the county with the “best representation, advice and counsel as I can when the time comes.”

Commissioner Gene Metz agreed with Sellers’ comments that the engineering report is going to drive the petition process. He also said he doesn’t think the K-LR would want to take back the CD11 hearing process.

As for any legal issues that may arise, Sellers said it isn’t the board’s responsibility to address them - instead, it will be up to the District Court or the Court of Appeals to address.

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Metz said that since the ditch authority has to deal with the engineer’s report, the board is following procedure. He recommended the board approve the waiver of conflict of interest, and commissioners did approve the waiver on a unanimous vote.

In other action, the board:

  • Recognized Sheriff Kent Wilkening for 30 years of service to Nobles County. Wilkening said he will have served 20 years as sheriff at the end of 2018, and he plans to refile next year in hopes of serving another four-year term.
  • Tabled a request to enter into a professional services agreement with Kehl Associates to evaluate and design soundproofing in the court services area at Prairie Justice Center (PJC). While commissioners agreed the project needs to be addressed, they wanted more information from past studies on the issue.

“We’ve been working on this issue since we moved into the building,” Wilkening said. “We had solutions looked at; nothing has ever been acted on. There was even a study, designs were done, nothing was acted on.”
Commissioners wanted the results of those studies evaluated to determine if the work could be done in-house, saving the costs of another study.

“I hate to keep throwing money at studies when things have been done in the past,” said Commissioner Gene Metz.

“I hate to also, but we also need to get the problem resolved,” added Commissioner Donald Linssen.

  • Authorized advertising for a request for proposals to complete a court security project at the PJC. The project will consist of a security booth in the hallway to the courts department, which includes interlocking doors, a screening station with a metal detector and bullet-proof glass. Wilkening said the goal is to have an agreement in place by the end of June, with a proposed completion of the project by Nov. 1.
Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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