Only one councilman, Brian Woolley, spoke against a proposal to make the office of city prosecutor an appointive position rather than an elective one during discussion at Monday night’s Rolla City Council meeting.
No action was taken. After the discussion had run its course, Mayor Bill Jenks said City Administrator John Butz would compile information about what other cities the size of Rolla do with that office. That information will be presented at a future meeting.
“I’m very satisfied” with the current appointed prosecutor, Jenks said to open the discussion. That prosecutor, Brendon Fox, was appointed after the elected prosecutor, Robert J. “Jeff” Stoltz resigned to move away from the city. Fox will serve until the April 2014 election—maybe. The council could negate the need for the election if it passes an ordinance making the office appointive.
Jenks said the advantage of the appointive position is “we have direct influence” over who is selected for the position, rather than relying on the voters to make the choice.
Often voters have no idea of the qualifications of the prosecutors, Jenks said, drawing a parallel between that decision and the trouble he has making a decision whether or not to vote to retain Missouri Supreme Court judges because he doesn’t know anything about their backgrounds.
Replying to a question from Councilman Kelly Long about other municipalities, Jenks said, “it’s very, very common” to have appointive prosecutors.
Councilman Lou Magdits said, “I’m torn on it.” Although he likes the idea of people voting for who they want, he acknowledged that it is often “difficult to know who you’re voting for.”
The only attorney on the council, Woolley, who is a public defender, said, “I strongly oppose changing this.” He said residents of Rolla should “have their say” about who serves them in public office, so “I’m very opposed to this.”
City Counselor Lance Thurman disagreed with Woolley, saying the problem is that the pool of possible prosecutors is small, being only attorneys who live in the city limits. Then, he said, the pool of qualified prosecutors is even smaller if only attorneys who practice criminal law and live in the city are considered.
“You’re really only talking about 10 people,” said Thurman.
Thurman said he ran for the office and was “obviously unsuccessful” but now serves as the appointed prosecutor for three small cities. He said the city would be able to hire a prosecutor from outside the city limits, opening up a larger pool of qualified attorneys.
Having an outsider as prosecutor would be better, he said, for there would be no bias and no relationships, that would get in the way of deciding who to prosecute, he said.
Page 2 of 2 - Councilman Walt Bowe asked about the length of term of an appointed prosecutor. Butz said an appointed prosecutor would likely be given a three-year contract with a two-year extension. An elected prosecutor serves a two-year term, he added.
Bowe said that although the council might feel it could do a better job of selecting a prosecutor than the electorate could, he acknowledged he might have difficulty because “I don’t have the expertise, just like the voters don’t have the expertise.”
One resource the council could call upon for information would be law enforcement officers, Jenks said.
Police Chief Mark Kearse was called to the microphone to offer his assessment of the possible change. Kearse said that in his law enforcement tenure in Rolla, which stretches back to 1982, “probably 60 percent of the time we train the prosecutor.”
Prosecutors learn criminal defense, not criminal prosecution, in law school, he said, so law enforcement officers step into the gap and fill out their education.
“We are on the same team,” he said.
Consequently, law enforcement officers pay attention to lawyers and know who would be good prosecutors.
“We’re as much an expert as anybody,” he said.
Kearse said the city could draw on more candidates for the office if it is appointed and contracted, which would be better for the residents.
“I think appointed, for our size community, is best,” he said.
Thurman said Rolla could, instead of hiring a police chief, elect a city marshal. He said hiring a police chief makes more sense for a town like Rolla, and so does hiring a city prosecutor.
Councilwoman Sue Eudaly agreed that more qualified candidates could be found for an appointive position because most people don’t want to be involved in an election campaign.