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Itasca County's top county attorney choice withdraws from consideration

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.

James Austad did not provide a reason. At Tuesday's Itasca County Board meeting, 13 people opposed his appointment, most because of his requested salary and perceived political leanings.

GRAND RAPIDS — The lead candidate to become the next Itasca County Attorney has removed his name from consideration for the appointment.

The announcement about James Austad came in a Wednesday, June 12, news release from Itasca County Administrator Brett Skyles. The release did not provide a reason for Austad’s withdrawal nor specifics on how the County Board will proceed.

“Mr. Austad is confident the County Board will make the best decision for Itasca County residents,” the release stated. “... Itasca County will be considering further prospects and what is best for our community moving forward.”

Skyles said in a phone interview that the Board has not decided if it will instead select one of the other applicants or begin the hiring process anew.

Austad — an assistant attorney general in the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and a former assistant Itasca County attorney — was selected as the Board’s top choice in a 4-1 vote at its May 28 meeting. He ranked first of four applicants, based on evaluations done by an interview committee.

Austad’s potential selection faced criticism in the same meeting by Rae Florek of Taconite, who told the Board about her own negative experiences as a victim of intimate relationship sexual assault in 2013. She alleged Austad was the reason her ex-boyfriend was not prosecuted and that Austad made slanderous comments about her to her attorney.

The following week, Austad addressed the Board and alluded to the allegations but did not directly address them. He primarily expressed concern about low assistant county attorney pay and noted he wanted assurance this would be addressed, if he were to accept the position.

“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,” Austad said. “There’s a lot of unknowns in that process.”

The Board discussed Austad’s potential appointment at its meeting Tuesday, though declined to take action, citing the absence of Commissioner Terry Snyder. Austad had requested a salary of $185,000, which would have him making $25,000 more each year than previous County Attorney Matti Adam. Adam’s salary reached $160,000 in January, after she received a raise of $18,223 that month.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, 13 people spoke in opposition to Austad’s appointment, with most statements expressing concern about his salary and political leanings, citing his work for the attorney general’s office and a previous endorsement of Attorney General Keith Ellison, a Democrat.

“We see a track record of a man that would support Antifa and things of that nature — what is happening in our community?” Wade Freshour told the Board Tuesday. “And we’re looking to men like yourself to stand in the gap for us.”

The County Board is tasked with replacing Adam, who was selected by Gov. Tim Walz to become a judge in the Ninth Judicial District in April.

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.