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Norman County pays in 'awkward' dispute with attorney

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Norman County commissioners were forced to add money to the county attorney's budget this week, the latest step in a protracted lawsuit between the county and its chief legal counsel.

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On Tuesday, the county board added $28,417 to the 2008 budget for the office of Norman County Attorney Thomas Opheim. It's the only court-ordered concession Opheim has received since first suing the county for a larger budget in 2007.

But County Commission members still could be held in contempt of court for not increasing the budget by a court-set Sept. 30 deadline. Judge Jeffrey Remick is considering contempt charges after conducting a hearing Thursday in Norman County District Court in Ada.

Commission Chairman Steven Bommersbach said Remick plans to decide within 10 days.

"I suppose he could throw us in jail," Bommersbach said.

In lawsuits filed in 2007, 2008 and 2009, Opheim has asked Norman County District Court to order the commission to budget for a legal secretary and an assistant county attorney. His attorney argued that Minnesota law requires the county to do so.

Opheim declined to talk about the lawsuit, directing questions to his attorney, Mike McNair of Fargo. McNair couldn't be reached for comment on Thursday.

The Norman County Commission, asserting that it already has allocated money for the positions, just not in their own line items, fought the suits in court.

Bommersbach said it's been the county's practice for years to include money for the assistant attorney in a general "salary" line in the budget, while cash for a secretary is included in the "building rent" line.

"All of a sudden, that changed" when Opheim requested additional money for those positions, Bommersbach said.

Starting in 2007, Opheim has asked for steep hikes in his office's budget. In 2008, he requested $102,000 more than the 2007 budget of about $117,000 - an 87 percent increase. The amount added Tuesday is only about one-fourth of the increase requested.

Because Opheim, who serves in the elected post part-time, is the county's top legal adviser, the lawsuits have made for some uneasy moments, Bommersbach said.

"It's very awkward, no doubt about it," he said.

In Opheim's 2007 lawsuit, a different District Court judge rejected his claims.

In the 2008 lawsuit, Remick ordered on June 3 that the requested items be added to the 2008 budget. The order also calls for the county attorney to get nearly $11,000 in legal fees.

Norman County is appealing Remick's decision, with its brief due Oct. 21.

Judges in both the Minnesota Court of Appeals and Norman County District Court denied the county's motion to delay the June 3 order to budget for the two positions.

The Sept. 30 deadline set by the District Court was issued before the Appeals Court denied the county's motion on Tuesday. That's why the board didn't adjust the budget until Tuesday, Bommersbach said.

Both sides tried without success to settle the matter out of court, Bommersbach said, but "couldn't make much headway. He pretty much stuck to his guns."

The 2009 lawsuit is on hold pending the resolution of the 2008 matter.

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