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Crow Wing County attorney seeks 7th term in office

Don Ryan

Like any good Minnesota tale, County Attorney Don Ryan said—for him—it all began with a man named Ole.

The Crow Wing County attorney said the late Ole Howard asked him decades ago to run for the elected office, and give up his private practice and public defender contract with Aitkin County.

"My wife and I talked it over, and I met with my grandpa who was still living and decided to give it a go," said Ryan, a Brainerd High School alumnus and fourth-generation lawyer. "There were seven of us in that first election ... and from there we've never looked back."

The 57-year-old husband and father of three is in his 24th year as the chief prosecutor for crimes occuring in the county and recently announced he is seeking another term in office.

"I'm blessed to have served as county attorney at all—let alone for the last 24 years—and I don't believe that there's another job that I can have that gives me the opportunity to have as big or as significant of a positive impact on our community than what I have right now," Ryan said.

The county attorney is also the legal adviser for the Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners and county departments, handling everything from land use to contracts and other civil matters.

Seventh term?

Ryan, a lifelong Minnesotan, is asking county voters for a seventh, four-year term. He was first elected Crow Wing County attorney in 1994.

"I still have a huge passion for the job, I still enjoy coming to work every day, and I think whether I'm doing a good job or not, or whether I still seem to have the fire or the abilities in the courtroom I had in the past, I think you need to ask the other people in the community," he said.

How enjoyable Ryan found work was put to the test when the county board met in an emergency session a year ago in January to hire legal representation in the lawsuit by Ryan, who appealed the board's resolution that set the county's 2017 budget and property tax levy.

"As far as doing what I thought I had to do ... sometimes elected officials have disagreements, and you just have to do what you have to do to accomplish what you believe needs to be done," Ryan said Friday.

Ryan alleged the board's actions were "arbitrary, capricious, oppressive or in unreasonable disregard for the responsibilities and duties of the office of the county attorney, and the county attorney's experience, qualifications and performance."

"I don't appeal my budget lightly, and it saddens me after 20 budget submissions to do so,"

Ryan had said in a statement after the board's Dec. 27, 2016, meeting. "But I believe it's in the best interest of my office and the citizens of Crow Wing County to do so at this time."

After about 40 minutes of closed session deliberations, the county board agreed in July to settle the lawsuit it faced from Ryan over his 2017 budget. The settlement permits the county attorney to hire an additional legal assistant and to hire another county attorney in 2018.

"I think the board and I are past that. ... I think that's behind us," Ryan said Friday. "I have started going back to county board (meetings) towards the end of last year. I can't make it all the time because I have court scheduling conflicts quite a bit. I've spoken with the commissioners."

Ryan is among the three highest-paid county employees: $141,495 for County Administrator Tim Houle, $125,500 for Ryan and $116,741 for County Engineer Tim Bray.

Brainerd native

Ryan's great-grandfather opened his practice in 1903 in Brainerd and a member of the Ryan family has practiced in Brainerd ever since. Ryan graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College with a degree in political science and from the William Mitchell College of Law in 1988.

"More and more, we look at ways to try to not only hold people accountable but to divert them to a better setting where the underlying mental health issues can be addressed, and if we can do that ... society is in a better place than if we just lock people up," he said.

"I think that's a huge challenge. It's a huge challenge in Crow Wing County, it's a huge challenge, I think, across the state and nation, and that's something we've been spending a lot of time on, trying to focus and come up with new and innovative ways to deal with that."

Ryan has served as president of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association and recently talked about establishing a family advocacy center as part of his future plans if re-elected.

"The number of cases we're trying to process and the complexity of the cases, for the reasons stated and others, continues to go up. We had a 19 percent increase, for instance, in in-custodies, and what that means is when someone has been arrested," Ryan said.

"I hired five people last year. I just hired another person who will start March 5, and so we went from this office that had a lot of long-term employees to this new youthful energy situation, and so it's just an exciting time ... to help this next generation of attorneys."

When Ryan was first elected as county attorney, he said he started with three assistant county attorneys and two non-attorneys on staff, which will grow to nine assistant county attorneys and 11 non-attorneys on staff starting next month.

"The ability to make our community better than it was when we found it—that I think most people want to do—well, I'm just blessed to be in a position where I can have a lot of ability and opportunity to do that," Ryan said.

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