County Board considers solutions to office space challenges in judicial center
During its Tuesday, June 21, committee of the whole meeting, the County Board heard from County Attorney Don Ryan and Corrections Manager Krista Jones, who said the current configurations of workspaces are not ideal.
BRAINERD — With makeshift spaces in use for one office and another department split between multiple locations on the Crow Wing County campus, commissioners discussed how to create better accommodations for staff members in the county attorney and community corrections offices.
During its Tuesday, June 21, committee of the whole meeting, the County Board heard from County Attorney Don Ryan and Corrections Manager Krista Jones, who said the current configurations of workspaces are not ideal. Ryan — prompted by Commissioner Paul Koering’s concerns — repeatedly emphasized he’s not asking for a new building, but rather seeking ways to use already existing space in a more productive fashion.
“We have had some preliminary conversations in starting to look at what would some of the possibilities be, primarily within the footprints of the buildings we have,” Ryan said.
Ryan said his office overtook a conference room and the third-floor law library space in the Crow Wing County Judicial Center for needed workstations unable to fit in the original area assigned to the county attorney. Jones noted between the judicial center and the Community Services Building, her staff works in four separate areas.
“When we moved into the judicial center, if you would have told me I would outgrow that space, I would have physically laughed,” Ryan said. “I mean seriously. We had open offices, we had open workstations.”
Ryan estimated at that time in 2006, his staff consisted of seven attorneys, including himself, and nine non-attorneys. Now, the office includes 12 full-time attorneys, 14 non-attorneys and two contracted attorneys — growth reflective of caseloads and more complex legal proceedings than ever before.
“Overall gross case numbers aren’t necessarily rising, but the sophistication of the criminal conduct is, and the sophistication of the investigations that go along with that are becoming more demanding,” Ryan said. “ … Now, not only do we have digital photography and digital video, we have squad cams, we have body cams, we have security videos from all of the various places we can find along the route that’s involved in that criminal conduct. All of that increases the sophistication. It takes more time for my non-attorneys, for my attorneys and myself to process that information, decide what we want to do.”
Ryan said practices are evolving, too, as more people facing charges seem to opt for contested omnibus hearings, which provide the opportunity to challenge issues or evidence in a case before a trial.
“More defendants seem to want to go to trial, or at least go through contested omnibus hearings than ever before,” he said. “And so that means that we’re prepping witnesses, we’re prepping exhibits, we’re going in courts and we’re trying stuff.”
Jones also pointed to growth in staff size as a driving force behind an office split between four locations. Staff associated with specialty courts providing intensive supervision and case management for drug and driving while intoxicated offenders moved to the Community Services Building, for instance, and some supervisors switch between that building and the judicial center.
With room available on the second floor of Community Services, Jones said it would be a good fit for corrections staff. The community services director oversees the probation agents and others in the corrections department.
“I think there’s a lot of benefits with us being housed over there and being near the social workers and the financial workers,” Jones said. “ … Definitely an option to look forward to. But I think that we just wanted to be able to come and give you the information so that you’re aware, and we’re not asking for anything at this time. But I think it’s important that you understand where we’re at. And I certainly echo a lot of Don’s comments around just the complexity of the cases and how we have really moved towards some specialized areas so we can have a bigger impact for our clients, including mental health agents.”
Jones said the second floor would accommodate the entirety of operations for the corrections staff, with the need to build some interview rooms. The rest would be cubicle spaces, she said. This, in turn, could free up space for Ryan’s needs.
“If that’s something that makes economic sense to do or can be done to meet the needs that we foresee, that’s something we’d like to pursue and bring back to the board for consideration,” Ryan said. “I think it would be enough space down there to be able to address the issues that we currently have. And like I said, when we first moved into those buildings, I didn’t think I’d ever have this issue.”
County Administrator Tim Houle said now is the time to have these discussions as the board is in the midst of the 2023 budget process and putting together the county’s capital improvements plan for years ahead.
“There’s probably some short-term things you could do. I heard loss of conference rooms, and that can be an issue, especially in a court building where attorneys want to meet with clients and probation agents need to meet with clients as well,” Houle said.
“ … One of the things that I think has been a sore spot for a lot of folks, including board members, has been in the judicial center. When you walk in there, there’s that great, big lobby next to the glass next to the elevators. That is basically wasted space, and you should probably take a look at adding some conference rooms (on the) second floor, third floor. That will alleviate some of that in the short term.”
Houle said evaluating the needs and spaces would be a good first step, but he wouldn’t expect the board to move forward with a remodeling plan this year.
“Frankly, the construction costs are pretty high right now, and so I think planning efforts now make sense,” Houle said. “I’d love to see what happens in the construction trades over the course of the next year.”