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Rural prosecutors oppose bills to restructure offices

January 28, 2015 at 3:55 a.m. | Updated January 28, 2015 at 3:55 a.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to a typing error, Maries County Prosecutor Terry Schwartze, who is a woman, was identified with the male pronoun, "he," in the original version of this story --- which was corrected at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28.

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State Sen. Bob Dixon wants to give counties the option of joining together and sharing one full-time prosecutor rather than having part-time prosecutors with private law practices.

But that is a bad idea - based on testimony at a Tuesday afternoon hearing.

Six prosecutors and a couple of county commissioners from rural Missouri spent nearly 42 minutes testifying against two proposed bills to allow changes in the way some prosecuting attorneys operate in the state.

The four supporters of the bills took just 16½ minutes endorsing the measures.

"This is a discussion that is not going to be easy," Dixon, R-Springfield, told the Senate's Judiciary Committee. "But I am convinced that it is right to have the discussion."

One of Dixon's bills would allow county commissions to adopt a resolution abolishing the county prosecuting attorney's office and, instead, join a state's attorney system created by the law. The state would pay the main attorney's salary, while the counties would share and continue to cover all other salaries and office costs.

His other bill would allow contiguous counties within a judicial circuit to employ one, full-time prosecuting attorney for all the participating counties.

That bill, if passed, wouldn't take effect until 2022, because the state's judges currently are looking at ways to redraw the current, 45 circuit court boundaries. That process must be finished by 2020 under a law passed last year.

"My number one concern about these bills is, this is a slippery slope toward a mandatory district attorney system," Pulaski County Prosecutor Kevin Hillman said.

Maries County Prosecutor Terry Schwartze said most of the opponents "are full-time prosecutors concerned about the future of their counties." She fears the proposed circuit attorney system would require people "to go to the biggest town in the circuit" where the prosecutor's staff wouldn't "know anything about our own community."

Moniteau County Prosecutor Shayne Healea said allowing all five counties in the 26th judicial circuit to have one main prosecutor would result in people driving 60 or 90 miles to Camdenton or Lebanon - the largest cities in the circuit - instead of a shorter drive to the prosecutor's office in each county seat.

And Moniteau County Presiding Commissioner Kenneth Kunze voiced concern Dixon's bills would hurt the county's existing financial operations. "Being the smallest county in the 26th Judicial District," he said, "we feel that it will take away from our county."

Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight, this year's Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys president, told the committee his statewide group is "neutral" on the proposals.

But Knight reminded the lawmakers that county governments - not the state - pay for all prosecutors' operations, "despite of the fact that, in all these cases that we handle, we represent the citizens of the state."

All first-class counties - including Cole, Boone, Callaway and Camden in Mid-Missouri - are required to have full-time prosecutors.

"By default, all the other counties have part-time prosecutors, unless they elect to have a full-time prosecutor, by a vote of the people," Knight said.

But the duties for all prosecutors is the same.

Former Camden County Prosecutor Brian Keedy now is the Sullivan County prosecutor, appointed to the post by Gov. Jay Nixon.

"When I left the prosecutor's office in Camden County, my salary was $133,000 a year," Keedy said. "I went to Sullivan County and my salary is $41,000 - the same that the salary was for the prosecutor in 1999."

Full-time prosecutors "have had significant increases" over the years, Keedy said, while the "part-time prosecutors have had none."

Changing the salary structure would attract more people to prosecutors' jobs.

Eric Zahnd, Platte County's prosecutor, agreed part of the problem is that Missouri's 47 prosecutors "who are so-called part-time prosecutors are underpaid," even while working 40 or more hours each week on prosecution matters, then working a civil law practice "to put food on the table."

Maries County Presiding Commissioner Ray Schwartze is concerned about being out-voted in a cooperative agreement, leaving his county without any say in the office.

But Dixon said each county would have to approve any proposal in order for a cooperative agreement to be made.

"There's no way that a larger county could out-vote a smaller one," he said.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough told the Senate committee that similar proposals have been around at least two decades.

Jasper County Prosecutor Dean Dankelson - in his 17th year on the job - said Dixon's proposals "promote career prosecution, and I think that is a big benefit for the state of Missouri."

But Monroe County Prosecutor Talley Kendrick said the's proposals "erode local communities and their ability to govern themselves based on rural values." Ultimately, he believes the prosecutors would be "less efficient, more expensive and less accountable to local communities."

The committee took no action on the proposed laws Tuesday.

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