Voting requires thought, research

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Not for a while have Austin and Mower County witnessed an election race with more potential for interest and even excitement than this year's election of a county attorney. The incumbent is being opposed in the election not just by one, but both his assistants. The 2002 election of a county attorney gives voters an opportunity of making a difference by their individual ideas for what kind of lawyer should serve, but we cannot make this choice effectively until we both understand the office and are familiar with how well the candidates match its demands.

The race, then, is between incumbent Patrick Oman, Chief Deputy Jonathan Olson, and Assistant Patrick Flanagan.

Oman has been in the office for 14 years, with which he has earned the asset of specific experience as well as longer experience as a lawyer than either of his opponents. His tenure is also, alas, a liability because voters can hold him accountable for his stewardship. And this they are. There is a strong and significant movement to unseat him as being demonstrably incompetent, irresponsibly soft on criminals, and insensitive to crime victims.

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I respect the non-defensive and reasonable way he has thus far responded to these serious criticisms. His demeanor suggests one who has confidence in his performance and owes no apologies. Although as the office's top lawyer, he has ultimate responsibility. I wonder how his critics can charge him with serious failings within his office and then favor one of his assistants, as if this assistant was never involved in any of the things about which they hold him accountable.

Oman certainly has been much more deeply involved in community affairs than the others, one of whom (Flanagan) only recently arrived and is apparently not yet very much involved. Oman has made himself known not only as county attorney, but in a wide variety of volunteer community roles. Olson quickly became involved, especially in active humble roles more than publicity-generating prominence.

The other, Flanagan, was first to file against Oman. He quickly gained the support of law enforcement officers generally, even to the extent that Austin police Chief Paul Philipp and Mower County Sheriff Barry Simonson not only publicly endorse him, but serve as his campaign co-chairmen. The question for voters, however, concerns whether this is a pro-Flanagan or an anti-Oman position. If the latter, the next question concerns whether they feel Olson might not be an equally acceptable county attorney or, indeed, preferable to Flanagan. Inasmuch as Olson wasn't in the picture when they came out for Flanagan, we won't know unless we ask -- which is fair enough.

One can but wonder, however, whether in understandable zeal for their own responsibilities, if the chief and sheriff didn't go too far. To express their satisfaction with a candidate is one thing, but to chair his political campaign is at least unorthodox, if not unprofessional. So think some of their officers. Traditionally, such endorsements come from a police fraternal organization.

One lawyer asked me, "Do citizens really want a county attorney who is 'in bed' with the police?" As yet another legal official in another jurisdiction told me, this office "must review charges of excessive force, shoddy investigations, and shootings in the line of duty. These responsibilities should not be tainted with the realization that endorsements are on the line."

Whether this is, in fact, a compromise and whether citizens are concerned is one of the major decisions voters need to make.

Another consideration is the fact that Flanagan has been a prosecutor for only one year. Or, does this very fact mitigate his responsibility for the things within the office to which many object and, therefore, for which Olson would be more accountable? Yet, Flanagan is putting up his one-year to challenge Oman's 14 and Olson's 3 1/2 years, one of which is as chief deputy. Moreover, Olson has an additional three years of prosecutorial experience elsewhere.

Flanagan, on the other hand, has previous experience both in criminal and civil law. He is no baby lawyer.

If law enforcement can't work well with Oman after 14 years and if they have known the one they promote for only one year, it has been suggested that Olson might be the happy medium.

I have heard it rumored from several sources that Olson is running not to serve in the office but only to deflect votes from Flanagan. Then, the story goes, he will drop out to allow Oman to stay in office. Because this directly contradicts what Olson had already told me, I put the question to him flatly and received a flat assertion that he is in the race to win and serve. He has made no deal with Oman.

I am impressed with how well these three have continued to work within the same office and how careful they are to separate their political campaigns from their professional responsibilities. This speaks well for each.

Should we return Oman to the job of county attorney, or should we promote Olson or Flanagan? I have not said; I'm still thinking. You and I have the task of learning what the office requires and recognizing which of the three can best deliver it. I suppose it's too late for the Sept. 10 primary, but I should like to hear the two finalists present their cases in public debate.

Dr. Wallace Alcorn's commentaries appear in the Herald on Mondays