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  • Last modified 208 days ago (Jan. 23, 2019)

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Guilty or innocent?

Something’s very wrong with democracy in Marion County, and contrary to popular belief it has nothing to do with any of the people involved. It has to do with a system that, over time, has been transformed into something it never was intended to be.

As much as we worry about who gets elected to various positions, most of the positions we fill by election have little if any latitude to actually impact lives.

What justification exists for electing a register of deeds, a county treasurer, or even a county clerk?

The people who serve in those offices are, by and large, good and capable people, but most of what they can do in office is so strictly governed by law that about the only thing whoever occupies the office has discretion to do differently is pick others to work in the office and set policies on how people who walk into the offices are treated.

Real discretion about how to actually do the job they are elected to do is virtually non-existent.

Commissioners, council members, and mayors have no individual power. Judges in particular are hamstrung by laws that give them almost no discretion in how to set bail or sentence offenders.

The one official in each county with the greatest personal discretion is the county attorney, yet that position seems to be the hardest for counties to fill.

We have absolutely nothing against the person whom a handful of precinct committeemen decided over the weekend will become Marion County’s new county attorney.

About all we know about him is that he’s the brother of the hospital administrator in Marion and, as such, has attended a fair share of Hett family reunions.

We don’t know anything else about him because to the best of our recollection he has never lived in Marion County nor practiced law in Marion County. He apparently has worked as a public defender in Saline County and possibly lived in Beloit and Liberal — if you believe the Internet, which we rarely do.

Other than that, we don’t know squat about the person who will be empowered to allow offenders to buy their way out of convictions for anything from speeding to drunken driving and drug possession by purchasing legal indulgences known as diversion agreements.

Diversion has become such a prominent practice that it essentially is an optional add-on to be purchased by those who break the law.

For what’s usually $125 extra, scofflaws can have their convictions wiped off their records — if they can persuade a county attorney to go along.

But that’s not the only discretion prosecutors possess. Much as sheriffs and police chiefs might think they enforce the law, no one is ever charged with any crime until after a county attorney has decided what charges — if any — to file.

A drunk who grabs his or her live-in mate and brandishes a gun in front of law enforcement officers could be charged with anything from aggravated assault and kidnapping, which doubtlessly would result in serious prison time, to domestic battery or disorderly conduct or nothing at all — and any of those could be quietly wiped away with probation or a diversion agreement.

That’s tremendous latitude to give a single elected official, especially one almost none of us have ever heard of before.

Our new county attorney-designate, picked after at most half-an-hour of deliberation by a handful and a half of party loyalists may be great at this. We think and hope he will be. And also think and hope he will be a great addition to our community.

But something is very wrong with a system that bestows so much latitude on a person we know so little about and treats the job as if it were an apprenticeship more than one that has more potential that almost any other elected position to actually have impact daily lives.

The alternative to his selection appears to have been to bring back a former county attorney who quit to run for and win — in absentia — the county attorney position in another county, then decided she didn’t want to move and hung on as county counsel here for a while before also giving up that post in favor of yet another out-of-county attorney.

Marion County apparently has no lawyers willing to serve on a recurring basis. We have to import them from other counties. Yet the system — especially for the county attorney — bestows on them so much latitude that their position ought to be awarded only after careful examination of the potential officeholder’s track record.

When we already will be having special elections to fill other positions, why is it if a county attorney leaves office that selection of a replacement is made by a bunch of party members elected largely as an afterthought, mainly for social reasons, to run party apparatus? The process smacks not of democracy but of totalitarianism.

As a community, we’ve spent most of the past year debating how screwed up our county commission has become. Truth is, we’ve let the rest of our county’s democratic structures decay to the point that this is how we pick our chief prosecutor.

A better system is needed, and coming up with one is a serious challenge our legislators need to do serious thinking about instead of playing their usual partisan games, bandying about various hot-button issues.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Jan. 23, 2019

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