Q&A: County Prosecutor

The Daily World is running a question and answer series with candidates for public office. Though this race will not appear on the Election Day ballot, the new county prosecutor will be appointed by the County Commissioners within 90 days of current Prosecutor Stew Menefee’s retirement on Sept. 30. Whoever is appointed will serve the remainder of Menefee’s term, which expires in 2014. The following two candidates have publicly announced their desire to win the appointment. The Grays Harbor Democrats can nominate up to three candidates.

Katie Svoboda

Svoboda has been with the Prosecutor’s Office since 2004 and now serves as senior deputy prosecutor.

What do you see as the top priority for the Prosecutor’s Office?

The Prosecutor’s Office must always strive for justice. All Prosecutors have a duty to seek vindication for the victims of crime, validation for the hard work of our law enforcement partners, and accountability for offenders. The Prosecutor relies upon her Deputy Prosecutors to help carry out this mission.

Beginning with Stew’s departure, the Prosecutor’s Office is looking at a number of senior deputies that are closing in on retirement. Hiring and retaining highly qualified deputies that are committed to serving the county must be a top priority for the Prosecutor’s Office. The Prosecutor’s Office must maintain a level of experience and professionalism that allows them to achieve just resolutions when prosecuting criminals in Grays Harbor County.

What would you change about how the office currently operates?

One of the strengths of a Prosecutor’s Office is teamwork among deputies. I believe this partnership can be improved through implementation of a structure for mentoring deputies and encouraging collaboration on cases. Our office has several specialized practice areas with only one assigned deputy. By increasing collaboration, deputies could efficiently cross-train in other departments; thereby increasing the productivity of every practice area in our office. Exposure to a variety of cases would help to keep newer attorneys engaged, as there can be long periods of time with no turnover in the more senior practice areas. Increased collaboration would also ease the transitions that come when an attorney does leave the office.

I would extend this teamwork to our partner agencies as well. For several years, I have been part of the county’s child abuse multi-disciplinary team. This team is comprised of a variety of groups including: prosecution, law enforcement, victim advocacy, medical, mental health, and Child Protective Services. The team exchanges information about cases and works together to ensure that optimal outcomes for our child victims are achieved. This teamwork benefits each individual discipline. I am committed to increasing communication between the Prosecutor’s Office and our partners to see that we are achieving the best possible results.

What makes a good county prosecutor?

I have often joked that “I’m not an attorney, I’m a prosecutor.” Prosecution takes a different mindset than private practice, salaries are lower and caseloads are higher. A good prosecutor is dedicated to this immensely satisfying work, in spite of the inherent challenges. In my time as a deputy, especially over the last eight years handling sexual assault cases, I have experienced firsthand these challenges and the fulfillment that can be achieved through fair and determined prosecution.

The Prosecutor should also be held to the highest ethical standards, personally and professionally. My performance over the last ten years demonstrates that I have the ethics, leadership, and professionalism to represent the people of Grays Harbor.

What’s your strategy for coping with rising caseloads and dwindling budgets?

Unlike other county departments, the budget for the Prosecutor’s Office is almost entirely salary for necessary deputies and staff. Therefore, the best strategy for the Prosecutor’s Office in the face of a tight budget is to maximize the efficiency of the office.

Through my experience, I am aware of processes that need to be streamlined. For example, right now, if a deputy is doing research, they cannot search our materials that have been prepared in other cases on the same topic. Changing the procedure we use to save pleadings would prevent multiple deputies from doing the same work.

A key to greater office efficiency is to better utilize the technology that is already in place. Our office is at a point where it is poised to change and evolve. The Prosecutor should be someone, like myself, who is well-versed in the office as it exists, but with an eye to the future.

Mike Spencer

Spencer is a former county prosecutor and Superior Court judge, now in private practice at Brown Lewis Janhunen & Spencer.

What do you see as a top priority for the Prosecutor’s Office?

Absolute essential ingredients of a well-run prosecuting attorney’s office is the confidence, credibility, and respect, of both law enforcement and the judicial branch. Numerous sources have informed me that respect and credibility have suffered in recent years. It is of critical importance that the relationship with both law enforcement and the judicial branch be restored, and that both have the utmost confidence in the decisions being reached by the prosecuting attorney’s office.

The county prosecutor should be a leader, not a follower. There are numerous programs, grants, and opportunities available that would benefit the citizens of Grays Harbor. We need a prosecutor who will focus on the needs of this community, direct the office, and assist our elected officials in carrying out these efforts.

What would you change about how the office currently operates?

Deputy Prosecutors who are charged with the responsibility of successfully prosecuting crime are sometimes only as good as the training they receive. I would restore and institute a deputy prosecutor training program. Additionally, regularly scheduled meetings with attorney staff will not only serve as a training tool but can also be utilized in moving investigative files quickly through the office. Communication also encourages constructive discussion on how cases should be investigated, charged and tried before a judge or jury.

I would also assign deputies to regularly scheduled training sessions for law enforcement. Law enforcement in Grays Harbor County is a hard-working and dedicated group of men and women who strive to excel. Proper training and cooperative assistance will allow law enforcement to reach that goal.

What makes a good county prosecutor?

Without question, experience, judgment, and supervisory skill weigh heavily in the life of a successful county prosecutor. Life altering decisions are made on a daily basis, affecting both those who are victims of crime, as well as those accused. My previous experience as Grays Harbor County Prosecutor, City of Aberdeen Municipal Court Judge, Grays Harbor County Superior Court Judge, and many years of private practice have made me a better lawyer, capable of making sound decisions on the public’s behalf.

My judicial experience lends proof of my ability to reach decisions quickly and correctly, oftentimes in the middle of a trial. Of the thousands of rulings I made, and the hundreds of trials I presided over, only six resulted in my decisions being reversed by a higher court.

Grays Harbor County is one of the largest, if not the largest, corporation in the county. Grays Harbor needs, and deserves, a knowledgeable and steady hand in providing our elected officials sound legal advice in reaching their goals.

What’s your strategy for coping with rising caseloads and dwindling budgets?

Efficiency in the prosecutor’s office goes hand in hand with prompt turn around service for law enforcement, elected officials, and the Grays Harbor County Commissioners. The county prosecutor’s office is the largest law firm in the county with a budget of over two million dollars. On taking office, I would have an individual meeting with each attorney and staff member. At that meeting I would make one request: “give me three examples of how you can improve your job performance and efficiency, and make this a better office.” I know exploring the minds of each employee will lead to a more efficient office.

Additionally, we may simply have to do with less. This might require staff to work harder, but my past supervisory experience demonstrates my capability of ensuring the job will get done, and get done properly.

Cooperative discussion and cohesive effort between the Prosecutors Office, the Sheriff, City Attorneys and Chiefs of Police will no doubt lead to positive change. I will create a team approach to law enforcement. These changes, in turn, will increase the efficiency of all the county law enforcement agencies.