Grand County may have to go beyond its boundaries to find a qualified attorney willing to replace County Attorney Elaine M. Coates when her term expires.
Voters in the general election decided in yes-no balloting against retaining Coates as county attorney after her first term in office. Now it is up to the County Commission to fill the slot by appointment.Four attorneys in the Moab area could be considered potential candidates in a non-partisan appointment: Kathy Aldous, William Benge, Sandra Starley and William Schultz.
Commissioners discussed the procedure for filling the slot at their first meeting after the election, but acting Commission Chairman David Knutson said the process is so new, no one knows exactly how it is supposed to work.
"The only information I have is, if three attorneys residing here apply, we have to pick one of them, and if one does not apply, we can go out of the county," he said.
So far, three of the potential local candidates have at best expressed ambivalence about the job.
"I think we'd all like to get a better idea of what it entails," said Starley, 28. Starley moved to Moab last December to become the county's public defender. "I'm pretty sure I'll at least apply," she added.
Aldous, 34, said she was also waiting to see what would be involved. "My inclination at this point is not to do it."
Benge, currently Moab city attorney, has said he has no interest in being county attorney again. He served in the office three terms before losing to Coates when she ran a write-in campaign as an independent in 1986.
Schultz, former deputy county attorney, has developed a private practice in Moab and has said he is unsure he would want to get involved in a public role that could end in four years.
Commissioner Ferne Mullen said the most likely prospect if the search goes out of the county would be Lyle Anderson, of Anderson and Anderson Professional Corp. in Monticello.
Anderson, 35, has worked with Coates seven months under contract as deputy county attorney. He has also been counsel to the town of Castle Valley and Monticello City, the Grand County Special Service Recreation District, and the water and school districts in San Juan County.
Anderson said Knutson asked him the day after the election whether he was interested in the job. He said he would be seriously interested if the commission adjusted the salary and made the job full time.
Knutson said the county attorney is paid $26,000, plus benefits. The commission would consider making the job full time with a pay increase, but "whether the county has the wherewithal is another question."
Anderson said he earns $75 an hour in private practice while the $2,250 the county pays him for part-time work each month equals about $30 an hour.
"I'd told Elaine I was not willing to work any longer after the end of the year at that salary," he said. "If applications from non-residents are solicited, it'd be my intention to submit an application, but there are obviously lots of things that would have to be discussed - salary is one of those things."
Knutson said he was unsure if party affiliation is required by law as a qualifying factor in the county attorney appointment.
"I don't think it should be. I haven't asked that specific question," Knutson said. "I look at it right now as non-partisan. I look at who's going to do the best job for the county."
Another factor in the selection is the pending appointment of a new commissioner to fill the seat Merv Lawton vacated. The former commission chairman submitted his resignation Oct. 16 for medical reasons.
Commissioners accepted Lawton's resignation Oct. 22 and must appoint one of six Democratic nominees to the slot this month or it goes to the governor to decide, Mullen said.
Coates meanwhile is contemplating whether to challenge the new law that placed her on a retention ballot.
The law enacted by the 1990 Legislature says a county attorney who is unopposed for office must run on a yes-no basis in counties with three or fewer attorney-electors who are licensed, active members in good standing with the Utah State Bar.
The Utah attorney general's office issued an opinion last June saying the cutoff date for establishing the size of the qualified attorney-elector population was April 16, the filing deadline for county office candidates.
Assistant Attorney General John Clark said Schultz did not count as an attorney-elector because he was temporarily suspended from law practice Jan. 12, had not been reinstated by April 16, and therefore was not in good standing. He was reinstated April 27.
Aldous, who moved to Moab late in April, was not counted in the opinion letter, apparently because she was not a registered voter as of April 16 and had not met the 30-day Utah residency requirement. Aldous said she registered about a month before the election.
Her attorney, Joann Shields, of Campbell Maack & Sessions law firm in Salt Lake City, said the date used should have been the last day to register. Coates then could have run unopposed with six other county officers.