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Itasca County Attorney candidate addresses criticism, low attorney pay

Lead candidate for Itasca County Attorney Jim Austad addresses the Itasca County Board on June 4, 2024.
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ICTV
Lead candidate for Itasca County Attorney Jim Austad addresses the Itasca County Board on June 4, 2024.

Jim Austad told the Itasca County Board that the county's low assistant attorney pay hurts his ability to rebuild the office. He also spent some time addressing allegations made at a prior board meeting.

GRAND RAPIDS — Lead candidate for Itasca County Attorney Jim Austad alluded to allegations previously made by a member of the public at the Itasca County Board work session Tuesday, June 4.

The Board voted 4-1 to move into negotiations with Austad at its May 28 meeting. Earlier in the same meeting, Rae Florek of Taconite told the Board she was a victim of intimate relationship sexual assault in 2013, and the Itasca County Attorney’s Office declined to bring charges.

Florek said Austad reviewed her case before the office decided not to prosecute. She also alleged Austad made slanderous comments about her to her attorney in 2019.

Austad did not explicitly mention Florek in his statements to the Board Tuesday, but he does seem to reference her and said almost everything he’s seen about himself on Facebook is untrue.

“It’s disheartening, but there’s things that you’re allowed to say and not say, so I’d just say that,” Austad told the Board. “There’s always going to be misunderstandings and disagreements, but a lot of times, for various reasons, your hands are kind of tied. Whether you’re elected or have an ex-client that says things about you – [that] are not true.”

Austad’s response came near the end of his 15-minute statement to the Board. He spent most of his time expressing concern about assistant county attorney salaries and a likely related shortage of staff.

The starting salary for an entry-level attorney is $69,451, which Austad said he thinks is the lowest in the state and hurts the county’s ability to recruit new attorneys.

“You’re already behind the eight ball, maybe even on a different pool table, about trying to rebuild that office,” he said.

Austad acknowledged it’s the Board’s job to set salaries, but he wanted to be clear about his expectation that the Board address the situation.

“At least the way I would see the future of the county attorney’s office here going, we need to achieve some level of parity, especially at the entry level, to even be able to get applications,” he said. “... I think when you have the combination of the lowest salary, morale issues, we’re in a real – we, if you do appoint me – in a rough spot.”

The Board previously had an informational discussion about the low pay at a February work session. Board Chair John Johnson said in an interview Thursday that the Board is aware of Austad’s concerns, and the county is short three assistant attorneys.

“So the Board is mindful of that, and we recognize that as far as recruitment challenges, those sort of come along with the pay disparity concerns,” Johnson said.

During the discussion in February, Matti Adam, then county attorney, said the Itasca County Attorney’s Office appears in court between 180 and just over 200 times a week, leaving very little time for other duties like answering questions for county staff. The caseload can’t be meaningfully reduced because most representation is statutorily obligated.

Adam also explained that low application numbers aren’t exclusive to Itasca County and can be partially explained by the significant pay raise the Minnesota Legislature gave public defenders in 2023.

Johnson said salary and start date are the two things that must be agreed upon before the Board can officially appoint Austad to fill the role until voters elect an attorney in 2026. Austad’s salary request of $185,000 will be brought to the County Board on June 11.

Austad told the Board Tuesday that he wants to do this job, but he wants to be sure it will work.

“It’d be difficult to come into a new job, move the family, obviously going back to an elected position again, one in which I think you have an active electorate here,” he said. “There’s a lot of unknowns in that process.”

Megan Buffington joined the KAXE newsroom in 2024 after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Originally from Pequot Lakes, she is passionate about educating and empowering communities through local reporting.