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County attorney takes office space dispute to Superior Court

August 25, 2010
LANCASTER — County attorney Robert "Bob" Mekeel has turned to the judicial system in his yearlong effort to lease what he believes to be "suitable space for the conduct of the business" of his office.

On Monday afternoon, he filed a petition in Superior Court for Declaratory Relief, Injunction, and Writ of Mandamus against the Board of Cos County Commissioners and Cos County.

County Attorney Mekeel seeks to lease space on the third floor of the former Lancaster National Bank Building on the corner of Middle Street and Routes 2-3, now owned by the Passumpsic Savings Bank and to move out the cramped quarters in the state-owned Cos County Courthouse.

The office space provided by Coős County is unsuitable for the tasks that must be performed by the County Attorney's Office, Mr. Mekeel states.

The lack of suitable space directly interferes, he says, with the necessary activities and duties his Office and adversely affects the county attorney's constituency in a multitude of ways: creates unreasonable risk of injury to the staff; maintaining needed confidentiality; reduces the two attorneys' ability to review case files and prepare for the tasks their offices require, to maintain open and closed files in an orderly manner; and to direct and assist law enforcement plus meet with victims of crimes, witnesses, members of the public, including disabled individuals.

County Attorney Mekeel points out that he is an elected New Hampshire Constitutional Officer who is "possessed of wide common law and statutory authority, including the investigation and prosecution of criminal cases (excluding homicide), direction of local law enforcement agencies and sheriff, and is regarded as the Attorney General's deputy."

To support his assertion that "it is the duty of Cos County to provide space suitable for the business conducted by the Cos County Attorney," Mr. Mekeel cites a 1972 decision in Fortier v. Grafton County: "Every county shall have suitable buildings necessary for its uses...."

Furthermore, he writes in his filing that the state's county attorneys serve the public whose independent right to his/her services cannot be foreclosed. "Failure to provide suitable office space for the plaintiff interferes with the right of the public to the services of the Coős County Attorney," Mr. Mekeel states, adding that county attorneys are not employees of the Board of County Commissioners and do not work at the direction of the commissioners.

The county does not own property in the county seat of Lancaster that is suitable, Mr. Mekeel points out.

The Coős County Attorney and Coős County Victim/Witness Coordinator now occupy a four-room suite on the first floor of the Coős County Courthouse under a lease between the state and its Bureau of Court Facilities and Cos County executed on Oct. 3, 2007. The lease expires on August 30, but could continue on a month-to-month basis.

"The State of New Hampshire has not offered additional space for lease" as requested, Mr. Mekeel points out, noting that its renewal would require payment in excess of $5,000 which is above the amount over which the commissioners have sole discretion.

The staff of the Cos County Attorney's office includes four full-time workers: County Attorney, Assistant County Attorney, Administrative Assistant, and Victim/Witness Coordinator, plus a new part-time 16-hour-a-week clerk.

"The increase in the work-load of the Coős County Attorney's office has increased exponentially since the opening of the Cos County Courthouse in 1997." Mr. Mekeel points out.

At its monthly meeting on August 11, the commissioners said that they would require the County Attorney to remain in same space in the Cos County Courthouse, this despite its "obvious deficiencies" and also said they would not authorize payment for expenses associated with housing the Office in suitable space outside the Cos County Courthouse.

Mr. Mekeel maintains that the county commissioners lack the authority to require the County Attorney to occupy space that is unsuitable for performance of the Office's business.

"The defendant Board of Commissioners has acted upon a mistaken view of the duty of Cos County to provide suitable building space for the plaintiff," Mr. Mekeel argues. "The defendant Board of Commissioners has disregarded a clear legal duty to provide suitable office space for the plaintiff and "acted unlawfully, arbitrarily and unreasonably in refusing to provide suitable office space for the plaintiff."

The County Attorney asks the court to schedule its request as soon possible not only because it anticipates a difficult and demanding four months starting on Oct. 1 because of cuts in the judicial branch's budget but also because he anticipates receipt of the investigation regarding the two Colebrook explosion fatalities during the time.

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