DA race heating up " staffing issues come to forefront | VailDaily.com

DA race heating up " staffing issues come to forefront

Veronica Whitney

EAGLE COUNTY ” One of the keys to a stable staff is careful selection, district attorneys in the mountains agree.

“Our staff is relatively stable compared to a couple of other districts because we try to get older and more stable attorneys who want to move to our area rather than recent law school grads who are just looking for a job and are likely to move on when the first opportunity arises,” said Mac Myers, district attorney for the 9th Judicial District in the Glenwood Springs region.

Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert agrees. The key is to look for people who are willing to settle down, he said. When he first started working in the 5th Judicial District 10 years ago, Hurlbert said only the district attorney owned a house and was married.

“Now, six out of 10 (prosecutors) own their houses,” he said. “It’s important how to hire people ” already being a prosecutor helps because you make contacts across the state so you can lure people.”

Other incentives at the 9th Judicial District include maximizing pay and benefits, and a supportive work environment, Myers said.

“Making work fun, training opportunities, and encouraging all to excel,” he said. “No deputy DA salary in rural Colorado is going to compete with the private sector, but we do the best we can to get

money to our people.”

If Hurlbert loses to his opponent in the November election ” Clear Creek attorney Bruce Brown ” he said he expects more changes in the staff.

“There will be a turnover of mammoth proportions,” he said. “All of the attorneys have come to me and said they would leave.”

When Deputy District Attorney Nate Fehrmann had to look for a job, he decided to trade a higher salary for a life in the mountains of Colorado.

“I wanted to be in a mountain area. It’s less pay here and a different environment, but it’s a little bit more laid back,” said Fehrmann, 33, who in December 2002 took a job as a prosecutor at the Eagle office of the 5th Judicial District.

Fehrmann replaced one of five prosecutors who left the Eagle office around the time former District Attorney Mike Goodbee left to take a job in Denver.

Since then, an exodus of prosecutors has been a common occurrence not only in the 5th Judicial District, but in other rural area in Colorado. In some cases, half the staff of attorneys have left in one year.

“In the 10 years I’ve been a prosecutor in the 5th Judicial District, turnover has been a constant,” said District Attorney Mark Hurlbert. “(Turnover) has a lot to do with the cost of living and salaries.”

The district includes Eagle, Summit, Lake and Clear Creek counties.

The turnover of prosecutors in the district is one of the issues that divides the two candidates for the 5th Judicial District attorney’s seat this year. For Bruce Brown, a defense attorney from Clear Creek County who is vying for Hurlbert’s seat, turnover has been extremely high under Hurlbert.

“Generally, you’ll have a rural turnover that is higher than in an urban district, but Mark has lost seven prosecutors from a staff of nine since he became District Attorney in 2002,” said Brown, who said he expects to change this if elected on Nov. 2.

Hurlbert, who was appointed district attorney in December 2002 after Goodbee left to work for the state attorney general, said he inherited an office in bad shape, with not many attorneys left.

“It’s not just the turnover, but how quickly it was stabilized and how well,” Hurlbert said.

Stability at the top

Since Hurlbert took office in December 2002, nine attorneys out of a staff of 10 have left the district. During Goodbee’s five-year tenure, 15 prosecutors left. However, Hurlbert said three of the prosecutors who left since he took office were on their way out when Goodbee left.

“Of the people I hired, only three have left the office,” Hurlbert said. “Also, since I’ve been the DA there hasn’t been one case dropped or mishandled because of turnover.

Bonnie Roesink, district attorney for the or the 14th Judicial District, which comprises Routt, Moffet and Grand counties, said it’s not uncommon to have a higher turnover in the resort areas.

“Only one attorney has stayed in the 17 years I’ve been in this office. There’s a large turnover,” said Roesink, whose district includes Steamboat Springs and Winter Park. “Every two years there would be turnover.”

Since she became district attorney in February 2003, seven

attorneys have left Roesink’s office.

“The problem is the pay,” she said of salaries that start at about $40,000. “These people have large student loans when they come out of school and it’s pretty expensive to live in resort areas. It’s hard to compete with the private sector.”

In the 9th Judicial District “Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties” things have been more stable because, District Attorney Mac Myers said, he has been there for two consecutive terms ” eight years. In the past four years, seven attorneys have left.

Myers, who is leaving office this year because he is term limited, said things will probably change when he leaves in January.

“We’ve had a very stable staff here, but I’m leaving and we’re losing at least three prosecutors, possibly more,” Myers said of his staff of 11.

Competitive salaries

Myers also believes lower salaries in the resort areas can be blamed for the attorneys’ departures. “We were able to raise salaries and that combined with a good work environment helped retain some prosecutors,” he said.

Brown, Hurlbert’s challenger, said If he’s elected to the 5th Judicial District he will work on raising salaries and providing more training.

“These are jobs people will always be underpaid for, but you need to pay them more or change their schedules to allow them more flexibility,” Brown said.

Since he became the district attorney, Hurlbert said he has given a 5 percent yearly salary increase across the board. “And we’re asking the same for this year,” he said. “We also go up quicker. After the sixth evaluation we go from $39,000 to $41,000.”

Still, sometimes it’s a challenge to raise salaries without hurting the budget, Hurlbert added.

“If you take the money from somewhere else you hurt the ability of running the office,” he said. “Running a public budget is tough.”

The District Attorney’s Office is funded by the counties in he judicial district.

Another thing Hurlbert and Myers said they have done for their attorneys is improve their benefits. They offer the Public Employee Retirement Association’s retirement plan, they said.

“We’re one of two D.A.’s offices in the state that offers it,” Hurlbert said.

In comparison to turnover among attorneys, clerical staff changes have been very low at the District Attorney’s Office in Eagle, said Arlene Sandberg, an administrative assistant who has worked there for 22 years.

“I’ve survived about half a dozen district attorneys and dozens of deputy district attorneys,” Sandberg said.

“It seems there’s been times we had a lot of turnover,” she added. “A lot comes and goes with the elected DA. A lot of attorneys have left in the past when there was an election coming up.

“Since Mark took over, it’s been pretty stable,” she said.

Choosing the mountains

Though salaries aren’t high, Fehrmann said he can get by with what he earns as a prosecutor. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve been happy,” he said. “I’m not planning to leave anytime soon.”

Greg Crittenden, the 5th Judicial District’s assistant district attorney, is a former drug prosecution specialist in Mesa County who Hurlbert hired in March 2003. Crittenden said he moved to Eagle when Hurlbert made him a comparable offer.

“I don’t plan on leaving,” said Crittenden, who runs the Eagle office and was one of the prosecutors in the Kobe Bryant rape case. “We’d like higher salaries because it’s expensive to live here.”

Hurlbert, who earns $80,000 a year, said he could be earn twice that working in the private sector. “It’s not about making money, but serving the people,” he said.

Roesink said she has stayed for so long in the 14th Judicial District because she likes her job and the place where she works.

“You really have to like the job,” she said. “A lot of people are dedicated, but they need to support their families.”

Staff writer Veronica Whitney can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 454 or vwhitney@vaildaily.com.

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