County wins state auditor lawsuit in supreme court ruling

By John Holler Correspondent

For the last three years, Wright County has been defending itself in a lawsuit brought by State Auditor Rebecca Otto to assert the Constitutional powers of her office. At the April 24 meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, it was announced that Wright County had won the lawsuit, ending the three-year legal battle.

County Coordinator Lee Kelly told the board that the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings at the district and appellate court level confirming a state law passed in 2015 that counties had the right to use private accounting firms to conduct their audits, just as cities, townships and school districts do.

Assistant County Attorney Brian Asleson, who did much of the local work on the lawsuit, said the Supreme Court ruling was a clear victory for Wright County.

“The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled on two main issues,” Asleson said. “One was that it was not unconstitutional for the Legislature to pass the law that it did in 2015 which allows us to use private audit firms – it was not an action that took powers away from the State Auditor, which still has ultimate authority over those audits. The second issue had to do cutting the ‘garbage bill issue,’ what lawyers refer to as the ‘single- subject’ clause of the Constitution. The question there was whether the law change in 2015 was constitutional – the title of the bill being State Government Operations. The courts decided that regulating the Office of State Auditor is part of state government operations.”

For reasons that remained unclear to county staff, Wright, Becker and Ramsey counties were included in the lawsuit, which Otto claimed caused irreparable damage to the powers of her office. The only reference to Wright County in any of the filing documents was a disagreement over the legality of the Drive Wright program, a diversion program for traffic offenders to keep minor tickets off their permanent driving record.

A bigger issue has been the cost to go through the legal system to get an answer to Otto’s claim of Constitutional powers. The most recent cost figures say that more than $250,000 was spent by the Office of the State Auditor to keep the case going through the courts. The cost to Wright and Becker counties, who banded together to fight the lawsuit by retaining outside counsel, is currently at about $140,000, not including the increased cost of having the State Auditor’s Office conduct the last three county audits – at considerably more cost than having it conducted by a private CPA firm.

Commissioner Mike Potter said he was glad to finally have the case over and done with, but that the cost of going through the process left nobody a winner.

“It’s sad that this had to go on as long as it did and cost the money that it cost the taxpayers of Wright County and the State of Minnesota,” Commissioner Mike Potter said. “When Ms. Otto lost the case at both the district court and appellate court levels, it’s hard to imagine that she would believe she would win at the Supreme Court. In the end, this cost almost $400,000 of taxpayer money to find out the decision made by the Legislature was right all along. It just seems like a big waste of taxpayer money.”

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