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Renville County Attorney's Office seeking contract for outside help for coming year

Renville County Attorney Kelsie Kingstrom asked the county Board of Commissioners to approve a one-year contract with a Stillwater law firm to assist her office. The help is needed while she takes a three-month leave and to reduce the backlog of cases.

Kelsie Kingstrom PS.jpg
Kelsie Kingstrom
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OLIVIA — The Renville County Board of Commissioners will be deciding whether to approve a $150,000 contract with a law firm in Stillwater, Minnesota, to assist the County Attorney’s Office during the coming year.

Newly-elected County Attorney Kelsie Kingstrom asked the commissioners at their work session on Tuesday to approve the contract with the firm of Eckberg, Lammers P.C. If approved, it would make available the assistance of up to five attorneys to assist the Renville County office in the coming year, including Imran Ali.

Ali served as a special assistant to the Renville County Attorney's Office to prosecute Julian Daniel Valdez in May. A Renville County jury found Valdez guilty of second-degree murder — without intent in the August 2021 shooting of Pablo Eliazar Gutierrez, 31, in the city of Renville.

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Kingstrom told the commissioners she will be taking a three-month leave of absence in 2023, with expectations of being on leave from April 1 through July.

With her absence, the office will be down from three to two attorneys.

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“Our ship can barely sail with three people, let alone two,” Kingstrom said.

She cited a high caseload that is being handled by the office, and said the outside support could help reduce the backlog of cases as well.

Under the contract, the Stillwater law firm would provide its services for a set fee of $12,500 per month.

The firm would be responsible for handling 50% of all felony and gross misdemeanor cases from January through March and from August through December of 2023, with the exception of traffic-related felonies, such as cases of driving while impaired or driving after cancellation. It would handle 100% of the felony and gross misdemeanor cases during the April through July time, with the same exception.

The contract represents a 50% reduction in the original fee charged by the firm for services, she said. It also covers all of the firm’s expenses. The firm would be responsible for having an attorney present at in-person court hearings, and for virtual hearings.

The only caveat is the possibility of renegotiating the contract should the Minnesota Judicial Branch change current guidelines that allow remote hearings in many situations, and instead require in-person hearings for all court matters.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most hearings were moved online. While in-person hearings are held once again, the Minnesota Judicial Branch has continued the practice of using remote hearings in a variety of cases after the successful use of the technology during the pandemic shutdown.

Kingstrom said Ali is on board with her plea negotiation table that defines what plea agreements the Attorney’s Office will accept in criminal cases.

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“I trust Imran. He’s done great work for us,” Kingstrom said.

She said she explored a range of options for providing assistance during her absence in light of the large caseload.

“And this is the best idea that we’ve come up with making the ship sail smoothly while I’m gone.”

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County Administrator Lisa Herges said she asked Kingstrom if the caseload was due to a large increase in crime in the county.

“The answer is no,” the attorney told the commissioners. “We are just actually charging them out.”

She said the word had been that Renville County was a safe haven for criminals and that people can do whatever they want “and things aren’t going to be super bad, right?”

“Now, I’m hoping the word is spreading that is not the case anymore. We would treat you as if in Kandiyohi County or Redwood County or Yellow Medicine. We aren’t this safe haven anymore,” said Kingstrom.

There is a backlog of cases in the county, the attorney told the commissioners. The court is scheduling one trial each week, but trials remain backlogged up to May 2023, she said.

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She said she is hopeful that the assistance of the firm with its staff of five attorneys can help her office reduce the backlog. She currently handles all of the felony criminal cases with the exception of traffic-related felonies, and the office’s other two attorneys handle all of the other cases.

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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