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Commissioners' defense focused on timeline, proposed office renovation plan

November 23, 2010
LANCASTER — Defense attorney Phil Waystack sought to undermine the key arguments that county attorney Robert "Bob" Mekeel filed in August in his suit against the county regarding office space.

The arguments were filed by the county attorney in his petition for Declaratory Relief, Injunction, and Writ of Mandamus against the Coös County Commissioners and Coös County to force them to secure suitable office space. The most recent arguments in this case were made in front of Superior Court Judge Peter Bornstein on Tuesday, Nov. 16.

As he questioned and cross-examined witnesses, attorney Waystack tried to prove that the commissioners had not, in fact, been aware for as long as a year that county attorney Mekeel no longer found Suite 102 on the first floor of the courthouse "unsuitable" for the tasks that his office are required to perform. Attorney Waystack posted a timeline of meetings and events that indicated that it was not until March that county attorney Mekeel made it clear to the commissioners that he was very dissatisfied with his current office space and would like to rent space outside the courthouse.

Both county board of commissioners chairman Burnham "Bing" Judd of Pittsburg and county administrator Sue Collins said that the commissioners are convinced that the county attorney's office should remain in the courthouse for the security it offers, its convenience for law enforcement officers and the public, and its close proximity to courtrooms and ancillary services.

County attorney Mekeel pointed to the office's large caseload as well as a substantial and unwieldy collection of closed files as hindering the county attorney's office and the Victim-Witness Advocate from working as efficiently as would otherwise be possible.

Attorney Waystack, however, established that these closed files have neither been weeded nor indexed to prepare them for permanent storage.

Attorney Waystack elicited testimony that the commissioners and Ms. Collins had found that they could relieve some of the space crunch by renting file cabinet space in an existing vault on the top floor of the previously county-owned Old Courthouse. The then-part-time county attorney was housed on the second floor of this building before the new courthouse was opened in 1997.

Later, rentable space was also later found to be available in the attic of a Main Street house that has been transformed into offices, owned by realtor Sally Pratt.

Ms. Collins organized a "space walk" on July 1 through the first two floors of the courthouse in an effort to see if larger quarters could be secured for the county attorney.

Elected county officials, including county attorney Mekeel, state employees charged with operating state-owned courthouses, and Probate administrative Judge David King toured the facility and also discussed the problem of who would pay for any renovations needed to effect a solution.

State officials said that day that the state had no money available to pay for renovations.

Judge King said the state would be very reluctant to give up any space that might someday be needed, including the second-floor Grand Jury Room.

Mr. Mekeel, who previously had sought to move to the first 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, said that he would like to lease larger quarters on the third floor of the bank building. Attorney Waystack sought to establish, however, that Ms. Collins, with the full support and encouragement of the county commissioners, continued over the summer and early fall to work with state officials.

Communications apparently broke down, and county attorney failed to file his FY11 budget worksheets on time.

The county administrator, backed by the commissioners, worked out a plan for a three-way shift of offices at an estimated cost of $75,000, with the understanding that the county would pick up the entire cost.

The Sheriff's Department would move from the second floor to the county attorney's offices now on the first floor. The county attorney offices would shift into the first-floor Register of Probate's space, gaining 50 percent more space. Under the plan, the county attorney would leave 1,010 square feet and move into 1,520 sq. ft., including adequate space for file cabinets.

Probate would move to the Sheriff's offices, which would have the plus of allowing that function to be located adjacent to the Probate Courtroom.

Stephen Lorentzen of the Administration Office of the Courts said that following the state Administrative Council's Sept. 10 approval of the concept, architect Keith Hemingway of Bedford, who had designed the building in 1995, drew up a "first-cut" plan that could be refined to meet specific occupants' needs. The project would likely be implemented in phases over six to nine months.

Ms. Collins testified that if the county could avoid paying rent in a commercial building, plus electricity and janitorial services, the capital cost of the proposed renovations would be amortized over six to seven years. County attorney Mekeel argued, however, that spending that much taxpayers' money would, in essence, lock the county attorney into the courthouse in perpetuity, stifling any reasonable way to accommodate the future need for more staff should crime continue to increase even as Coös' population continues to decrease.

County attorney Mekeel said he "was not willing to support $75,000 of taxpayers' money" being used to renovate spaces inside the courthouse. But, he acknowledged, if what the commissioners are now proposing does go forward, he would move to the space the Register of Probate now occupies, agreeing that it would be better than his current quarters in Suite 102.

Judge Bornstein took the matter under advisement at day's end.

Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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