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Kandiyohi County Attorney Jenna Fischer makes a few changes

Kandiyohi County Attorney Jenna Fischer is pictured at her desk Feb. 22 during an interview at her Willmar office. Fischer said she hit the ground running following her election victory over 20-year incumbent Boyd Beccue. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

In an office warmed up with a new coat of paint, Jenna Fischer is charting a fresh course in how the Kandiyohi County Attorney's Office functions. A teamwork approach to cases and a staff retreat that resulted in a mission statement and a written set of core values captures some of the big-picture changes Fischer has made since taking office in January.

She has also eliminated the position of first assistant county attorney and initiated the full utilization of an existing victim services coordinator.

Working at a breakneck speed of 80-hour weeks that were a "blur" at the beginning of her tenure, Fischer now typically logs 50 to 55 hours a week to make changes in an office that saw a big change last November -- her election over 20-year incumbent Boyd Beccue.

"Things are going tremendously well," Fischer said. "Even the tough days have been good days."

Fischer took time recently to talk about her new role as county attorney and the changes she is implementing with the help of an experienced staff.

Some of those changes have been embraced with open arms; others may take time.

With a leadership style that she says is "180 degrees different" from her predecessor, Fischer is asking the 13-member department to make a "culture change," knowing there will be tension and anxiety.

"I knew walking in the door it was going to be asking a lot for the staff to see things my way," said Fischer, who held one-on-one meetings with department employees.

"They're very talented people, and they were very welcoming and accepting and they were ready to work," she said. "They were ready to see what I had to offer."

The most significant staff change happened on Fischer's first day with the departure of longtime First Assistant County Attorney Connie Crowell, lead prosecutor on the county's most serious crimes.

Fischer won't say if she asked Crowell to leave of if Crowell quit. However, due to budgetary reasons, there are no plans to hire another attorney to replace Crowell at this time.

Given the size of the office, Fischer said she does not believe a first assistant county attorney is warranted. Instead, the other five assistant attorneys will be given the opportunity to try major cases.

"I have a deep staff right now, and everyone on my staff is capable of doing the big cases," she said.

She has adopted a "team approach" that means at least two attorneys will be assigned to each high-profile case. That system will allow multiple attorneys to be knowledgeable about a case, share ideas with each other and hopefully reduce the stress, burnout and "psychological pressure" of prosecuting and winning complicated criminal cases, she said.

The system may also broaden the experience of the county's legal staff. "You don't learn anything new doing the same thing over and over again," she said.

So far the staff "seem to be taking to it very well," said Fischer, who also intends to be one of the team attorneys in high-profile cases. She is currently working with an assistant county attorney on a rape case scheduled to go to trial this summer.

"I expect to have a full criminal caseload at some point," said Fischer, who had worked as an assistant county attorney under Beccue in the past and was a private practice attorney in Willmar prior to being elected.

But Fischer is also spending time learning about other aspects of her job as county attorney, including being the legal adviser to the Kandiyohi County Board and department heads and delving into issues like drainage ditch law.

There was no transition from old to new to ease the process, and Fischer walked into the County Attorney's Office without the benefit of an initiation period.

But Fischer said she is working hard to learn on the job.

"What we're doing here in this office is so important to our community. It's important to give it 100 percent. I love it," Fischer said. "Good thing too, because I worked pretty hard to get here."

Another change Fischer implemented is linking the victim services coordinator between the county attorney's office, sheriff's office and community corrections office to provide victims of crime with a continual point of contact -- from when a crime is reported to when the perpetrator is sentenced.

"That way the victim always knows where the process is in their case," she said.

"We're trying to move to a more victim services culture, so providing that first point of contact to last point of contact is very important in becoming more responsive to victims' needs," she said.

In the past, that position was contained solely in the county attorney's office and was "underutilized," Fischer said.

As more changes are made in the evolving work environment in the county attorney's office, Fischer said her goal is for the staff to function as a "working unit" with common goals and values as well as individual ideas.

"I can't just dictate how that's going to be because that doesn't work," she said. "Their input is essential."

She also expects the high standards she's set for herself in the office to be followed by her staff.

"It would be very easy to become complacent, and I want no part of that," she said.

"There are multiple opportunities every day to do good," said Fischer. "How can I not put 100 percent into that?"


Core values

During a staff retreat in January the county attorney's office began a process to write a mission statement and set of six core values. That process continues at weekly staff meetings.

The core values include:

- Teamwork.

- Transparency, trust, respect and open communication.

- Justice, fairness, integrity and consistency as primary guiding principles to decisions and actions.

- Acknowledgment of value in people who have a "positive attitude, are knowledgeable and interested in their work, and able to demonstrate personal initiative."

- "Everyone in the justice system deserves respect, honesty and understanding."

- Responsibility for contributing to a positive work environment is shared by everyone in the office.