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County backtracks on deal with attorneys

The Wadena County Board voted to terminate its child in need of protective services and termination of parental rights legal services contract with attorneys Harry Taves and Ryan Ries after agreeing to sign it Aug. 5.

The $15,000 contract hired Taves' and Ries' services as defense attorneys for these cases for the remainder of 2008.

Commissioner Mary Harrison said she did not understand the terms of the contract clearly, particularly how they compared to a payment plan presented by County Attorney Kyra Ladd.

She had questions after hearing that CHIPS and TPR cases were decreasing, Harrison said.

Auditor Char West said Ladd informed her that only one case had gone to court since Aug. 5 and it took about a half hour. The payment plan Ladd presented was for a set fee ranging from $500 to $3,000 per case.

"I was unhappy that perhaps I had made a bad choice," Harrison said during the Aug. 21 county board meeting.

Chairman Orv Meyer said he also misunderstood the decision the board made.

"I thought it was something different, that we were following recommendation," he said.

Commissioner Dave Schermerhorn asked what the misunderstanding had been.

"Basically, which is the least expensive way to pay," Harrison said.

Commissioner Bill Stearns said the board doesn't know which plan will be the least expensive.

"The only way we know is to have a crystal ball or hindsight," he said.

West said it is her understanding that the number of CHIPS and TPR cases are decreasing because of changes social services has made in the way it processes things.

"[Ladd's] projecting that there will be fewer cases," Harrison said.

When Ladd presented her payment plan to the county board Aug. 5 she included an e-mail she received from Paul Sailer, the county's human services director, saying that the agency planned to reduce the number of children in out-of-home placements from a current monthly average of 30 to an average of 20 in 2009. He indicated that social services will emphasize Signs of Safety placements and Family Group Decision Making, resulting in less court time.

Stearns said the board should worry about how it's going to pay for the CHIPS and TPR representation next year, rather than taking so long to decide the contract for this year.

Harrison asked how much money the county would save by canceling the contract with Taves and Ries with 30 days notice.

West said $9,000.

That's if the county doesn't get some $3,000 cases, Schermerhorn said.

Meyer said, "But there aren't that many cases."

The decrease in cases could be a trend, Schemerhorn said.

"But now, all of a sudden, if we get hit with six of them ... what do we say?" he asked.

Stearns also brought up the recommendation by the Association of Minnesota Counties that counties provide a good defense for parents in CHIPS and TPR cases to avoid getting sued for inadequate defense later.

Harrison said she didn't understand concerns about insufficient defense because the judge has the right to appoint the defense attorney. She didn't think either of the district judges would appoint an attorney incapable of doing the job, she said.

She made a motion to terminate the contract with 30 days notice.

Commissioner Lane Waldahl, who voted against the contract with Taves and Ries Aug. 5, said he thought the board should go with the county attorney's recommendation.

The board unanimously agreed to terminate the contract with Taves and Ries and to accept Ladd's per case payment plan.

The county became responsible for providing defense attorneys for CHIPS and TPR cases in July after the State of Minnesota Board of Public Defense announced it would no longer cover these cases due to budget cuts.