Nelson takes county to court over his salary

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 17, 2002

County Attorney Craig Nelson filed a lawsuit asking the county to review his salary, claiming that he is underpaid compared to his peers in other counties. The commissioners will discuss the issue at today’s board meeting.

Nelson’s pay was set at $72,063.65 for 2003, a 3 percent increase over the $69,964.71 he made in 2002.

&uot;I understand that this is not a good time for the county (to raise the salary). But, I have been asking for this the past several years and never been heard,&uot; Nelson said.

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Nelson’s move followed a state law that allows a county attorney to file a petition to review a board decision about their compensation level within 15 days after the resolution is made.

The law requires the contesting party to prove the board determination was arbitrary, capricious, oppressive or in unreasonable disregard of the responsibilities and duties of the county attorney, his experience, qualifications and performance.

And Nelson believes his case has merit.

Nelson pointed out that his 2002 salary, $69,964.71, is $10,000 to $15,000 lower than other counties that have equivalent population.

Examples he quoted include: Steele County, with population of 33,680, $91,670; Mower County, population 38,603, $81,070; and Becker County, population 30,000, $98,694.

The county attorney’s duties have been constantly increasing, Nelson contends. His office prosecutes around 75 percent of criminal apprehension in the county; it is typically about 50 percent in other counties, he said.

Besides criminal charges, the county attorney is in charge of providing legal counsel to the county. The county has been involved in more than 10 lawsuits in the last year, excluding child protection cases.

Nelson asserts that the new courthouse project has jacked up his workload, not only for dealing the highly publicized litigation by the Freeborn County Committee for Fairness, but also handling more mundane contractual paperwork.

&uot;The number of hours I work, the number of cases I win, the number of court orders I draft, the number of contracts I draft to review, the soundness of my legal opinions and advice, does not directly affect my compensation. I don’t have any control over my income,&uot; Nelson said.

Nelson began practicing law in Minnesota in 1976 after completing a master’s program in theology at Oxford University, England and law school, and has been the Freeborn County Attorney for the past 12 years. He will be the vice-president of the Minnesota Bar Association next year, which is traditionally a stepping stone for the job of president following year. He ran unopposed and was reelected to a four-year term in November.

The board sets the annual salary of county elected officials each year. During the last board meeting on Dec. 3, commissioners decided to apply a 3-percent cost of living increase to all positions for next year, except for Recorder Kelly Callahan and Sheriff Mark Harig, who were elected for the first time.

The court will have a hearing to determine if Nelson’s claim has grounds. County District Court judges John Chesterman and James Broberg removed themselves from the case because of possible conflicts of interest.