New Hill County attorney agrees to work for old pay

(Havre Harald) Hill County Attorney Karen Alley, a former deputy attorney, started her new position July 30, taking over after Jessica Cole-Hodgkinson abruptly resigned.

But until Jan. 1, Alley is working for the same wages she received as a deputy attorney, about $30,000 less than what the former county attorney earned.

“I was willing to do in recognition of what the county needed,” Alley said today. “I’m happy to work at my current salary.”

Alley said her salary as a deputy attorney was already significant — $67,000 — because of her legal experience. According to the county attorney wage matrix, the county attorney position pays a little more than $97,000. (Pay stub receipts provided by the Hill County Auditor show that Cole-Hodgkison’s last monthly paycheck was for $8,227. Alley’s monthly pay for June 26 to July 25 was $5,583.)

Neither Commissioner Mark Peterson or Alley commented on whether Alley’s current wage — or delayed raise — has anything to do with a $49,000 severance package the outgoing county attorney left with.

According to the Voluntary Resignation Agreement obtained by The Havre Herald, Cole-Hodgkinson received $49,214.84 to resign her position. That amount, directly deposited as a lump sum, was equivalent to six months of salary, the remainder of her term which was set to end Dec. 31. She also received health benefits for the remainder of the year thanks to the agreement.

Cole-Hodgkinson was found guilty of three counts of contempt Aug. 7 by Hill County Justice of the Peace Judge Audrey Barger. She was ordered to pay $1,500 and sentenced to six days of house arrest. Cole-Hodgkinson told Barger she would file for a writ of review to a higher court. Judicial Assistant to District Court Beth Hannah said this afternoon that court has yet to receive an writ of review from Cole-Hodgkinson.

Alley won June’s Democratic primary when she beat out local attorney Randy Randolph. Because there is no Republican challenger to face in November, Alley would have assumed the county attorney position first thing in 2019.

But a tumultuous Cole-Hodgkinson term plagued by personal and job-related matters resulted with her resignation.

“The transition was more abrupt than expected, ” Alley said.

Alley said she can and has sought counsel from the Montana Attorney General and neighboring county attorneys, but there is still a learning curve. She has received wide support since taking over, she added. Both law enforcement and victims have been supportive and patient, as her office works to crawl out from a pile of backlogged cases.

“So far things are going well, though progress at this point feels slow. I am still getting a lay of the land, so to speak, determining what needs to be done now and what can wait a little bit longer.  With the abrupt transition, I am still getting my feet under me, so the continued patience of defense counsel and victims is greatly appreciated,” Alley said.

The Attorney General’s office has taken over a handful of cases, both active and cases that need to be charged. The office is also receiving help with some dependency and neglect cases, “which is a significant part of the caseload,” she said.

There is quite a bit of work to do.

“I am aware of criminal offenses that were committed as far back as 2016 — and some possibly earlier,” she said. “Once we work on clearing out that backlog, my goal is for the office to stay on track with investigative reports and filing offenses.”

Improved communication, Alley said, is something she’d like her office to achieve. Poor communication was a common complaint by many working with the former county attorney.

“It is my hope this office communicates more clearly and effectively with victims, with defense counsel and with law enforcement,” Alley said. ” I want people who are victims of crime to feel that they can communicate with my office and feel that their voice is heard.”

Alley’s arrival has brought about at least one immediate change: Jail booking photos will now be released to the public, a move contrary to those by former county attornies Gina Dahl and Hodgkinson.

Hill County was one of the few last holdouts in the state after a October 2015 ruling.

In 2015, Alley said, District Court Judge Jon Oldenburg, who sits in Fergus County, released an opinion that said booking photos are not considered confidential criminal justice information. Attorney General Tim Fox later referred to that ruling to support his decision not to offer a new ruling in a Gallatin County case that also concerned booking photos.

Judge Oldenburg found that since daily jail occupancy rosters are public criminal justice information under the law, booking photos are essentially part of daily jail occupancy rosters.

“My decision to release the photos, upon request, simply falls in compliance with this decision that was made three years ago,” Alley said.