Posted 2/03/15 (Tue)
By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer
In the short course of approximately one year when Jake Rodenbiker officially took office as the full-time McKenzie County State’s Attorney, his office has added four additional positions and will soon be at seven full-time positions. Those positions include the State’s Attorney, two Assistant State’s Attorneys, three Legal Assistants, and one Victim/Witness Coordinator. It’s mind-boggling to think that just over a year ago, the McKenzie County State’s Attorney’s Office was functioning with just one part-time State’s Attorney.
Rodenbiker took office by appointment of the McKenzie County Board of County Commissioners on Jan. 20, 2014, and was then elected to a four-year term that started Jan. 1. An Assistant State’s Attorney was added in the Spring of 2014, and a second Assistant State’s Attorney started this January. The additions have come at a time where the population has increased 10-fold due to the oil boom. And as with any population influx comes an increase in crime.
“Compared to when I first started, the office is now better equipped to handle the vast array of duties and steady demand of time required of a bustling McKenzie County,” says Rodenbiker. “As much as we are building traditional types of infrastructure in the region, we are building criminal justice infrastructure as well. That puzzle has many pieces, and they have all fit together more neatly as the days go by. From the judge to the clerk, the chief of police to the sheriff, the highway patrol to the narcotics agent, we’ve all grown more familiar with each other, and working together, have found ways to be more effective and efficient in playing our respective parts in the criminal justice process.”
Watford City has also added a public defender to devote his time to representing indigent defendants in McKenzie County. In spite of a booming economy, not everyone is able to afford an attorney. Rodenbiker feels that having a full-time public defender in the county is a welcome addition to a criminal justice infrastructure that is adapting to meet the growing needs.
The McKenzie County State’s Attorney’s Office is now comparable to that of Stark County and even Williams County. Last year, both McKenzie and Stark counties had over 2,000 criminal cases filed. But Stark County has four prosecutors and a long-established, full-time state’s attorney’s office. And even though Williams County filed more criminal cases, they have about the same caseload per prosecutor as McKenzie County, which is around 600.
“McKenzie, Stark, and Williams counties are really similar to one another as far as the numbers of cases and prosecutors are concerned,” said Rodenbiker. “Like us, I’m sure they’re feeling strapped. It might be nice to eventually whittle down the average number of cases filed per prosecutor to the 300 range. In the end, every county is unique in how it prosecutes cases, and each state’s attorney sets his or her own expectations and is responsible to answer to the people every four years. So I’m proud of what we’re doing for McKenzie County, and we will continue to prosecute as necessary and appropriate for our community. If that means getting bigger, that’s what I will ask the Board of County Commissioners to support.”
With the addition of two Assistant State’s Attorneys to the McKenzie County State’s Attorney’s Office and with three prosecutors now tackling the caseload, Rodenbiker is no longer doing it alone. He feels that it is important for the county to have the additional help because it means each case receives a closer inspection and consideration to find a just result.
McKenzie County State’s Attorney’s newest Assistant State’s Attorney comes to Watford City from Pembina County in northeast North Dakota. Stephenie Davis was the elected State’s Attorney in that county. Because her term of office did not end until Jan. 1, she wanted to fulfill the term she was elected to before moving to Watford City and stepping in to her new role.
Davis completed her undergraduate schooling at the University of Washington, then went on to the University of North Dakota, graduating from UND Law School.
A couple of things appealed to Davis when interviewing for the job in Watford City. She wanted to be in a bigger office and she wanted to focus more on prosecution, and not as much on civil cases.
“Being able to talk to someone is really nice here,” said Davis. “You don’t get that when you are in an office with just yourself and a part-time attorney. And there is no case division, which makes an attorney more versatile when working in this field.”
One of the things that impressed Davis was that fact that Watford City and McKenzie County, in her opinion, were already revitalizing before the oil boom. She says the city and county officials were smart enough to know it was in their backyard and promoted it.
“I think the commissioners’ hearts were in the right place with this expansion,” says Davis. “They seem to be willing to try and continue moving forward. The biggest thing walking into this is being part of a team. It’s being able to have a bigger impact in making the law-abiding citizens here feel safe. I don’t want people here to feel that they can’t go about their way of life. And being able to be available for our law enforcement is so imperative so there can be results. Jake, Chas, and I are very much on the same page. There has to be a balance in the justice system and we all have a very closely-related mind-set.”
With the addition of another Assistant State’s Attorney comes the topic everyone continues to follow and worry about - the falling oil prices. And it’s definitely a topic Rodenbiker knows he and his office need to think about and plan for when it comes to serving justice in McKenzie County.
“The effect of falling oil prices on the crime rate is a guessing game. But one we have to think about and plan for,” says Rodenbiker. “I don’t expect we will see any headlines that read, ‘Falling Oil, Rising Crime.’ Instead, what I think we will see is a leveling out for the time-being. I’m very hopeful that the current price of oil will not negatively affect the funding for the law enforcement partners with whom my office works, as many of them are trying to swell their ranks significantly to get up to speed. We are well situated by having a very dedicated and skilled complement of attorneys and staff right now who weather a downturn because we aren’t presently trying to add personnel. So even if oil falls further or stays low, I expect we will live within the modest means the Board of County Commissioners has granted us in our budget, and we will continue to be able to prosecute cases at least as effectively as now.”
In Rodenbiker’s opinion, McKenzie County has grown its State’s Attorney’s Office because the interests of justice have demanded it. Having a devoted team of seven, comprised of three attorneys and four staff, whose daily attentions and exertions are all fully turned toward serving the community, seeking the truth, and pursuing justice in McKenzie County, is Rodenbiker’s vision of what the county deserves at this time in its history.
“The county commission has been very supportive of this growth,” says Rodenbiker, “They recognize the importance of the State’s Attorney to law and order in our community.”
After spending most of 2014 in the courthouse bomb shelter, Rodenbiker’s office is glad to have a place to call home in the newly-renovated and expanded courthouse. When the new courthouse was designed, having a full-time state’s attorney in McKenzie County wasn’t on the horizon. As a result, when Rodenbiker took office, he was shown a blueprint giving him room for himself and two staff, which is what they already had. Fortunately, some revisions were made early on to accommodate some growth potential, but there were limitations to the amount of space available due to other departments’ office plans that were unchangeable.
“That growth potential soon became reality, and by the time we moved in recently, every space in my office was full,” said Rodenbiker. “There is little if any room to add an attorney, and my individual office is separate from the rest of my office. I would prefer to be behind the same main door as the rest of my team. It is a good reminder that we are public servants charged with a noble duty and should be gracious even in our humble space.
According to Rodenbiker, the new courtroom is a welcome change from the notorious trailer court. And his office is looking forward to the opening of the second, non-jury courtroom later this Spring.
In addition to a new courthouse and added positions in the State’s Attorney’s Office, the Legislature will be considering the biennial budget request from the Judiciary that contains money for an additional district court judge to be chambered in Watford City. Currently, there is one district court judge chambered in Watford City with a temporary, surrogate judge having been brought on board recently to help in the trying and resolving of older criminal cases. But a permanent solution is needed, according to Rodenbiker. The county commission even changed some of the new courthouse plans to accommodate a second judge, a second court recorder, and a second courtroom.
“For one city to go from no judge to two judges in as many years has to be unprecedented since statehood itself,” said Rodenbiker. “It goes to show even the judicial system recognizes the increased demands out here. It would be a godsend for the county, especially those of us directly involved with the court system, and I hope the budget is enacted with that provision. Having an additional judge in McKenzie County would speed criminal cases along and provide assistance in clearing the backlog of older cases.”
As a relatively new resident to McKenzie County, Rodenbiker is reluctant to try to characterize the change in population and crime in the past five years or so for the place he now calls ‘home.’ He does think, however, that everyone can live with the intuitive notion that, in general, more people will mean more crime. As the county continues to grow, he expects that crime will continue to increase as well, which is why he is thankful for the county’s support in the growth of his office and the justice system in McKenzie County.