Richmeier: New funding options should be sought to combat budget cuts
By ANGIE HAFLICH
County attorney candidate Susan Richmeier's approach to the office she seeks is to be tough when it comes to crime and open-minded when it comes to managing the office's staff.
Richmeier won the primary election in August over Deputy Finney County attorneys Brian Sherwood and Tamara Hicks. But since Sherwood's announcement that he would be conducting a write-in campaign for the Nov. 6 general election, Richmeier has continued to share her message.
Richmeier said that she will approach the county attorney position as both an administrator and as a prosecutor.
"I think you have to be in the courtroom, you have to administrate and you have to be in the community, so I think it's a multi-faceted position — so you know what the heartbeat is in each of those areas," Richmeier said.
The county attorney position requires a 24/7 commitment, in terms of being available to law enforcement and other attorneys in the office. Richmeier said that she is up to that challenge.
"I never jump into anything halfway. Everything I do is a full-time commitment, so if I have to be somewhere at 3 in the morning, that's where I'll be. ... It's just taking whatever your current project is and putting it aside for whatever needs to be done for the county, and I'm not afraid of that. Hopefully, the communication is such within the office and between law enforcement, KBI, the attorney general's office, whoever we need to call ... that we can work cooperatively to get whatever situation it is under control," she said, adding that there will also be a chain of command in place so that when she is unavailable, another person in the office will be assigned to handle any situation that arises.
The county commission set the 2012-13 budget for the county attorney's office at $1,391,429.24, a $50,000 cut from the previous year. Richmeier said that without knowing the way the office currently operates, she doesn't yet know how she will approach the budget.
"I think the first thing to do before making any statements on increase, decrease or status quo, is taking a top down look at everything that's going on in the office. From salaries, to where are we spending our money," she said. "I'd like to talk to every single individual in that office (and ask), 'What is it you do? How do you go about doing it? Can we be more efficient?'"
In dealing with the possibility of future cuts to the budget, Richmeier said, "Looking at it at face value, it would be difficult to say, 'Here's where we need to cut something.' I know that currently, there are positions that have not been filled, so it could be that you just — just natural attrition is taking care of where they've told you to cut it."
She added that because the possibility of future budget cuts exists, other options should be explored.
"I've talked to other counties. They're getting grant monies, they're finding creative ways of going about doing things, and we can learn from the other people in the state who are facing the same problems we are and having to make due with less," she said.
Because the office is financed by county taxpayers, Richmeier said some aspects of the office should be transparent and accessible to the public.
"I think that there are things within the county attorney's office that the public will never know and that's because ethically, we can't disclose that and legally we can't disclose that information. The stuff that can be public information — the win/loss record; we have a trial going on next week — Let's let the people know about it. I think they need to know what they're getting for their dollar," she said, adding that she also wants to implement training and educational programs within the community.
"I think it's just getting information out there, which is why I think the county attorney should be in the public and the schools, seeing what the kids are doing on a day-to-day basis, seeing what's going on in the community and participating in that and talking to people," she said.
The same type of outreach is something Richmeier sees as being necessary in serving the variety of cultures representative of Finney County.
"Part of the difficulty in the legal system is knowing whether or not the interpreters you're using are actually communicating with these people what it is that's going on in their lives. What effect a crime that they've committed can have on them tomorrow, on their visa, on their ability to become a full citizen of the country," she said.
She also said that oftentimes, particularly in cases of immigrants to the U.S., what is considered illegal here is considered legal in their respective countries.
"I don't know how you do it, but we have to continue to try, and part of that is treating all of the people of the community with respect and understanding and trying to cooperate with the leaders of those communities. That's the only way I think you can make it work," she said.
Because the county attorney position is an elected position, political pressures are a part of the job, but Richmeier said that she will be able to make difficult decisions independent of outside pressures.
"I don't have a group of people that I feel beholden to. If you gotta make the decision, you gotta make the decision. You hurt my family, you hurt my community, you're going to go to jail. That's the facts," she said. "And just because you're female or just because you've been a family law attorney or just because you haven't worked in that office, doesn't mean that instinct doesn't kick in."
In a separate interview, Richmeier said that she has no intention of firing anyone or eliminating any of the positions currently in place at the county attorney's office.
"I think my first job is to listen. I think the smartest thing to do, if I have the opportunity to do so, is talk to all the people in the office, one by one," she said, adding that they are the ones who know the strengths, weaknesses and where things could be improved.
She said she has, "a belief in making things better — improvement, not destruction."