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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Commissioners tasked with filling county attorney position

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

For the second time in the last two months, the Dawson County Commissioners are faced with naming a temporary replacement for an elected county official.

With Dawson County Attorney Olivia Rieger’s appointment to District 7 judge by Gov. Steve Bullock late last week, the commissioners must now find a replacement for her. Whoever they select will be filling out the last year-and-a-half of Rieger’s term, as the post will be up for election to a new four-year term in November 2018.

With Rieger’s appointment to the bench just being made late last Friday, the commissioners on Monday said they don’t really have a handle yet on what they can or can’t do or who they can or can’t appoint to take over as county attorney.

“We need to look at the (Montana Code Annotated) and see what we can and can’t do, but it’s our decision,” said Commissioner Doug Buxbaum. “It’s a very important decision.”

A review of the MCA shows that qualifications for county attorney in Montana are fairly simple. In a county with a population less than 30,000, as Dawson is, the two qualifications a person must meet are they must have resided in Montana for at least two years and must have been admitted to the bar for at least the last three years. Those are the only qualifications listed in the MCA.

However, the commissioners acknowledged that attorneys are hard to come by in not only Dawson County, but the entire surrounding area.

“It’s just going to depend on what we get for applicants,” said Commissioner Dennis Zander.

The commissioners also said they are unsure without consulting the MCA, or possibly even asking the Montana Attorney General’s Office, if appointing one of the two deputy county attorneys as interim county attorney would be ethical or legal, given that both have spent several years working with Rieger as their boss, and would now have to prosecute cases before her as a judge. 

However, Rieger, in a telephone interview late Tuesday evening, said that there would be no conflict of interest and no legal reason either of the two deputy county attorneys could not be appointed to replace her in the interim, adding that at least one of the two deputy attorneys “is very interested in pursuing it.” The two deputy attorneys are Cody Lensing and Brett Irigoin.

One thing all the commissioners said is they are hoping to appoint a replacement for Rieger as quickly as possible, given the high caseload the county attorney’s office continues to work through.

“You know there’s times they get an overload over there even when we have a full staff,” Buxbaum said.

While the commissioners are left working to sort out an appointment to replace Rieger, they all said they are thankful for the nearly seven years of service she has given working as the county attorney, much of that coming at the height of the Bakken oil boom when the office was often swamped in cases, and all three added they believe she will make for an excellent judge.

“We hate to lose her as our county attorney, but I think that in the long run, it’s good for the county,” Zander said. “It’s a decision (Governor) Bullock made that I’m actually happy with.”

“We all three wish her all the best,” said Commissioner Gary Kartevold.

Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

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