The wheels of justice can grind slow at times, but, after more than three-and-a-half years, Wright County finally got reimbursed for being forced to defend itself in court.
On Feb 4, 2016, then-Minnesota State Auditor Rebecca Otto filed a lawsuit against the State Legislature, with Becker, Ramsey and Wright counties as co-defendants, claiming the Legislature passed a law that diminished the core function of her elected office to conduct audits of counties. The law allowed counties in good audit standing to seek outside firms to conduct their annual audits, which saved counties like Wright County tens of thousands of dollars a year.
When contacted at the time, Otto wouldn’t get into specifics as to why Weight County was included. In the 65-page suit, the only mention of Wright County was the DriveWright program, a driver diversion program that allowed drivers with otherwise good driving records to keep a ticket off their record.
Wright and Becker counties joined together to hire attorneys to represent them in the legal case and, after more than three years of trying to get their costs paid for – Otto lost her case, which she appealed all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court. At the Aug. 6 meeting of the Wright County Board, Auditor/Treasurer Bob Hiivala said that, after a lot of legal wrangling, Wright County finally got the check it was waiting for.
“The state did reimburse us for our legal expenses,” Hiivala said. “They named us in the lawsuit and we still don’t know why they named us in the lawsuit. We incurred legal fees in order to exercise our right to choose our CPA firm. The reimbursement back to us was $70,303.41.”
Several legislators have backed the county’s assertion that there was no legal reason for them to be included in the lawsuit, but, considering it was tacked on as part of the state’s omnibus bill during this year’s legislative session. Hiivala said the county would like to thank the bill’s sponsor, but have been unable to determine who that is.
“We’re still trying to figure out who authored the bill,” Hiivala said. “We know that Rebecca Otto said they should have to pay these legal fees. Current State Auditor (Julie) Blaha echoed that, saying Wright and Becker counties shouldn’t have to pay that big fee. They didn’t stand in the way. They wanted us to get reimbursed. It passed last year, but got vetoed and didn’t go through.”
Commissioner Mike Potter said that the battle has been long and was glad to see that the county finally got its money back because its inclusion in the lawsuit was absurd.
“This whole thing was nonsense from the beginning,” Potter said. “This whole situation was a power play by Rebecca Otto trying to exert the level of her authority as State Auditor. Why they got Wright County and Becker County involved still doesn’t make any sense. Fortunately, we had people at the Legislature see this and felt we deserved to get reimbursed for the cost of fighting this and defending our rights in a lawsuit that never should have included us in the first place.”
The check will be placed in the county’s general fund, where the cost of fighting the case came from initially.
John Holler covers county government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.