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County attorney candidates address many issues

 

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The candidates for Hill County attorney spent some time Tuesday talking to voters, telling them why the candidates thought they should be elected in the primary election Tuesday, June 8, and answering a series of questions during a forum held at the Hill County Electric Hospitality Room.

Havre Daily News Publisher Martin Cody moderated the forum, set up by the Havre Daily and the Hill County Democratic Party. The attorney candidates and Hill County commissioner candidates were invited to the forum, with all three Democratic attorney candidates, incumbent Gina Dahl, Deputy County Attorney Lindsay Lorang and private attorney Randy Randolph, attending.

With no other candidates filing for the position, the Democratic primary will determine who the next county attorney will be.

Each candidate listed different strengths they said would make them the best county attorney.

Dahl cited her experience as a county attorney and deputy county attorney, listing her two years of work in the Cascade County Attorney's Office before she came to the Hill County office in 2003. Dahl was appointed county attorney in 2008.

She said she has trained and continues to seek out training in many areas, including civil issues like contract and road and employee issues, and prosecuting offenses like driving under the influence, sexual assault, and partner or family member assaults and offenses against children.

"All of the issues that face Hill County on a daily basis," Dahl said.

She has built strong relationships with law enforcement and Hill County department heads, she said.

"I am truly dedicated to this profession, and that is shown through the things I have done and the things I am continuing to do," she said.

Lorang said one of her strengths is her experience on both sides of criminal offenses — she worked as a student lawyer in the public defenders office in Missoula, as well as prosecuting cases as a student and as a deputy county attorney.

She repeatedly said one of the things she wants to focus on is finding alternative sentencing recommendations to try to help, while holding Accountable, people convicted of a crime.

"How to prevent repeat offenders so we don't get fourth, fifth, sixth DUIs; second, third partner assaults," she said.

"How can we prevent it before it happens? How can we hold them accountable that very first time they come to the courtroom to make sure they never see it again." She said she also wants to focus on communications with the other county departments, which she likened to a family — their budgeting is like a family budget, and sometimes the departments fight just like a family, she said. By working together and exploring different options, it will make the county government work better, Lorang said.

"I want to lead the county attorney's office to work with the other departments to make the county a better place," she said.

Randolph said one difference he has from other candidates is his ties to the area. As a fifthgeneration area resident, coming back to Havre to practice was his first choice.

"I came back to Havre because I wanted to serve the community … ," he said. "I came back because I wanted to, because I felt obligated, because I felt comfortable here, because this is my town, this is where I grew up." He said that, as his opponents do, he cares about people.

"I want to give everybody a fair shake, that's what I care about," he said. "I want everybody to have a chance. I don't want some kid to have his life ruined over some relatively minor offense." Randolph said his extensive work in defending people in criminal charges makes him uniquely skilled, adding that often the best prosecutors are former defense attorneys, and vice versa.

Randolph said he would have a caring, compassionate office if elected. The attorney's office has gotten too big, now set behind security glass with people having to be "beeped" in to get in and talk to an attorney.

"I want to be approachable. I want to be somebody people can talk to," he said.

Winning cases All three candidates gave slightly different, yet slightly similar, answers on one question: what can be done to improve the conviction rate the county attorney's office has in criminal cases, or how to measure success.

All three said the purpose of prosecuting cases is not necessarily to convict the accused.

"First of all, our job is not about convictions our job is about seeking truth and justice," Dahl said. "That may sound corny, but that is absolutely the case." She added that she does have a high rate of convictions in cases she has prosecuted through trials, which comes with experience, she said. Part of the job is determining which cases should be taken to trial, Dahl said.

"There's a lot of judgment, a lot of experience involved," she said.

Lorang also said there is more to success than looking at a conviction rate. That includes the prosecuting attorney properly following the law, protecting the rights of all and presenting a clean case, she said.

"I have won cases, I have lost cases," she said, adding that that decision is up to the jury, not to the attorney.

Randolph said as a defense attorney, he has a different measure of success: If his client is happy with the representation he gave, he has been successful.

He did say the office could increase its rate in one simple way: making better decisions on what cases to take to trial and what cases not to take to trial.

"It's important to be responsible.

It's important not to prosecute cases if you don't have a chance," he said.

Medical marijuana The three candidates gave similar answers on one question — what can be done by the county to regulate medical marijuana: at this point, not much.

"Obviously, we're beating a dead horse with this question.

There's not a lot we can do," Randolph said. "It doesn't matter what I think or my opinion on the issue because all I can say is the county has to follow the law." While the Legislature could take action to further regulate the use of prescribed marijuana for medical purposes, as the state does for other prescription medications, it is not his choice, Randolph said.

Dahl said her office has been researching the issue thoroughly, but as the statute stands, the county can't do much.

"Not that we're not still looking," she said.

Hill County is working with groups including the Montana Association of Counties, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, the state Attorney General's Office and the Justice Department to see what can be done, she said.

Lorang said the county needs to continue looking to see what can be done to regulate the issue, but there isn't much that can be done now.

"We're at a point where we need to be enforcing the laws of the state, especially the county attorney's office, which is not a legislative body," and the office needs to be enforcing the laws as passed by the voters of Montana in accordance with the state constitution.

Dahl in the coroner's inquest One question was specifically asked of Dahl: why she did not recuse herself in the coroner's inquest in the death of Allen John "A.J." Long Soldier Jr., who had been detained in the Hill County Detention Center administered by her husband, James Dahl. The inquest found no gross negligence on the part of Hill County employees.

"I did not recuse myself because there was no conflict of interest," Dahl said.

She said because she represents Hill County, the fact she is married to the administrator of the county facility in question creates no conflict. A conflict implies improper sharing of information, she said.

Be caus e any at to rney involved in the inquest would have had access to the same information she did, it did not create a conflict, Dahl said.

For example, she said, as her husband is a member of the union representing the sheriff's office employees, she does recuse herself from those union negotiations.

Social host ordinance When asked if they would support the Legislature working to create or allow counties to create a social host ordinance, where adults hosting parties for minors where alcohol is served could be prosecuted even if the adults could not be proven to have provided the alcohol, the candidates gave very different answers.

Randolph, with an answer similar to several questions, said it would not be his job to try to create laws.

"I think it's a bad question," he said.

Randolph said his job as county attorney would be to enforce laws, and that the county attorney should not be pushing to change the laws.

Dahl gave a different answer about supporting an effort to pass such a law.

"I would," she said.

Dahl said that now, under state law, there is little the counties can do on the issue.

Changing that would be a good idea, she added. While law does exist to punish people providing alcohol to minors, work could be done to fill in the gap, she said.

Some people may think that they are helping youths by providing a safe place for them to drink, Dahl said.

"There is no safe place for children to drink," she said.

Lorang said the appropriate action is for the county attorney's office to enforce existing statute. The state already has laws in place to deal with the problem, she said, adding that it is a serious problem.

"I don't think the solution necessarily is to legislate responsibility," she said, adding that the key is to promote parents teaching their children responsibility and for adults to act responsibly around children.

 
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