GRAND RAPIDS — The two candidates vying to be Itasca County's chief prosecutor and legal counsel met Wednesday for a forum that drew diverging opinions on the priorities and needs of the office.
Matti Adam and John Dimich are running for the county attorney seat, which is open this year for the first time since 1990. Incumbent Jack Muhar is stepping down after seven terms in office.
Adam, 35, is an attorney of six years who has worked in Muhar's office since 2014. She has experience across criminal and civil law, most recently serving as a prosecutor before taking a leave to run for the post.
Dimich, 67, an attorney of 41 years, served in the county attorney's office from 1978-86 and is currently a solo practitioner in Grand Rapids. He also serves as the city prosecutor for 10 Itasca County municipalities.
Dimich, who is running on a platform of fiscal responsibility and reform, didn't shy away from criticism of the status quo.
He expressed opposition to staffing additions that have increased the size of the attorney's office in recent years, said the county spends too much money contracting with outside firms for civil litigation and claimed the office is not transparent with its cases and statistical trends.
"If you want change, if you want to move forward in a different direction, that's what I'm offering," he said.
Adam, on the other hand, defended the work of the county attorney's office and expressed an interest to expand relationships with fellow agencies and the public.
She said her current position within the office and her tenure working across the legal spectrum has given her the experience needed to provide "efficient, effective, high-quality representation to the community." But Adam said she'd also bring a different voice to the office.
"We need young people to get involved and be active leaders in our community, because that's how we have strong communities, by building the next generation," she said.
About two dozen members of the local legal community attended the lunch-hour forum hosted by the Itasca County Bar Association at the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids, less than two weeks before the Nov. 6 nonpartisan election.
Dimich told attendees he has a wealth of experience working tough cases — those involving domestic or sexual assault, juveniles and the elderly. He said he wants the needs of victims prioritized, alleging the office currently avoids some difficult cases.
"We need to be victim-focused," he said. "I'm not sure we're doing that in domestic cases. I don't think we've done enough in criminal sexual conduct cases. I hear too much in the community that it's not being charged, one of the reasons being it's not going to be successful. The victim is dependent on you to be their advocate, and I think sometimes we're not enough of an advocate for them."
Adam, though, said she makes it a priority to meet with victims and the advocacy agencies that serve them, particularly when a tough decision must be made on a case.
"One thing that I really keep in mind as a prosecutor is that I am a minister of justice," she said. "That is what I am called to do every day. That means that we protect the safety of the public that we serve, all the residents of Itasca County. That means we file charges when it's appropriate to file charges, but it's also important as a minister of justice to decline to file charges when it's not appropriate to do so."
Both candidates addressed the role of chemical dependency and mental illness in the courts system, saying they supported diversion programs that provide equal justice and treatment court programs that provide an alternative to incarceration.
Both also expressed a need for immediate action on the Itasca County Jail, which has been deemed inadequate by the Minnesota Department of Corrections. The county is currently exploring a significant renovation or construction of a new facility.
Dimich said more low-level, nonviolent defendants should be released with conditions rather than having bail set. Adam said she is effective at resolving cases with defense attorneys, but noted that the jail population is largely dependant on decisions from the judiciary.
In the end, though, much of the debate boiled down to budgets, staffing levels and resources.
Dimich called the office "overstaffed." He said there were four attorneys in the office when he left in 1986. There are nine today, and the county has seen only marginal population growth over that time.
"I come from private business," he said. "We don't get the luxury of saying well, we need another person. We just have to learn how to handle the workload with the people we have. That's what my challenge is."
Adam said the court dockets are so overwhelmed that she has routinely had contested hearings with witnesses starting at 8:30 p.m. She said attorneys need to have manageable caseloads.
"As an individual that goes to work every day knowing I'm being paid by tax dollars, we need to be responsible with what we do," she said. "But the bottom line is that we also need to be staffed appropriately and have the resources to respond to the issues that arise."