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  • Writer's pictureRoger Sims, Journal Staff

Harding announces intent to resign as county attorney

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

MOUND CITY – Citing a burgeoning caseload that has been detrimental to his private practice and his family obligations, County Attorney Burton Harding has announced his intent to resign his elected post as of March 31.

Harding made the announcement of his resignation on Monday, Feb. 13, to the Linn County Commission. He also told commissioners that his assistant had also submitted his resignation effective April 7.

Harding, who took his post in early 2021, told commissioners that changes in both the Sixth District Court system and growth in the number of law enforcement officers in Linn County is making it impossible to be a part-time county attorney and maintain his private practice. He also said that his family obligations also had created conflicts where he could not be in court or in his office when he needed to be.

With four small children and a wife that has intermittent health problems, Harding said there have been times when the sheriff and the court has been frustrated with him when he couldn’t be available.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t working while at home. He cited a recent example where he had to be home because of illness in the family and yet handled 35 telephone calls about county business throughout the day and into the night.

Harding said the nature of his office has changed dramatically in the past two years since he was elected to what was then a part-time position. Historically, all of the county’s prosecutors have worked one to one and half days a week in court appearances and a day to a day and half on other duties like pleadings

However, while recently retired District Judge Terri Johnson scheduled most of the court dates on Tuesday each week, her replacement, Judge Andrea Purvis, schedules cases throughout the week. In addition to Purvis and District Magistrate Valorie Leblanc handling cases, the district recently appointed former Osawatomie attorney Richard Fisher Jr. to be another judge in the district, and he has his own docket in Linn County.

“This position is absolutely every bit of a full-time, 40-plus-hours-per-week position,” Harding said. “Because of that it is not tenable for me to continue what I’ve been doing and wearing two hats.”

He said that choice for him was to be a full-time Linn County Attorney or not a Linn County Attorney at all. After spending considerable time weighing his needs, his family’s needs and the needs of the county, he felt it was better that he step away from the County Attorney’s post.

He also said he was concerned that he was being pulled in so many directions that he might commit malpractice.

“Everything has grown, grown, grown except for this position and this office and the expectations of this office,” he said.

Commissioner Jim Johnson said that court shut down in 2020 because of the COVID pandemic, suggesting Harding’s job should have been easier then. But Harding countered that while in-person court was suspended, court conducted on the Zoom program continued.

Harding said that Miami County has a full-time county attorney, whose salary is $100,000, and who has four full-time assistants. Crawford County is about the same as Miami County. Bourbon County pays nearly $98,000 for a full time county attorney, who has three assistants.

He said his recommendation was that the county hire a full-time county attorney for a $130,000 salary and either a part-time or full-time assistant attorney. Harding said that currently his salary is in the mid-80s.

Commission Chair Danny McCullough asked about a shortage of attorneys in southeast Kansas, and Harding acknowledged that there was a shortage in rural areas.

However, he said that offering in the $130,000 range for a full-time county attorney would likely draw qualified applicants. He also said he had talked to another attorney about the post, and that person indicated there would be interest in the job for that salary.

Harding also pointed out that recent graduates from law school were getting salaries of $115,000 to $130,000 a year.

McCullough asked what would happen if the county couldn’t replace Harding by the time he left office on March 31.

County Counselor Gary Thompson said that in that case, the district court would appoint an attorney to be the temporary county prosecutor. Usually that situation is brief, he said, but he added that with the current shortage, it could last longer.

Thompson told commissioners that the process for replacing the county attorney started with Harding sending a letter of resignation to Gov. Laura Kelly with a copy of the letter to County Clerk David Lamb. Because Harding is an elected Republican, Lamb would in turn notify Jackie Taylor, who is the county Republican Central Committee chair.

Taylor would then have 21 days to hold a convention of the precinct committee men and women, and that committee would vote to nominate a replacement. That nomination would be sent to the governor, and she would make the appointment.

Sheriff Kevin Friend acknowledged that his department has grown along with the demands on the county attorney’s office.

In addition to the 21 officers under his command, several of the cities have as many as four police officers now, which also creates demand for the prosecutor’s attention. He also said that the county attorney receives cases from the Kansas Highway Patrol as well as state game wardens.

He echoed the need for a full-time county attorney and an assistant.

Friend said that the previous Saturday he had contacted Harding by phone just before midnight about a case. He also said that he and Harding meet frequently, including on cases that have dragged on so long that he is concerned about constitutional rights to a speedy trials.

Friend reminded commissioners that he had appeared before them just recently asking them to raise county employees’ wages. He noted that now the county attorney and an assistant were leaving and he expected the trend to continue unless the commission acted.

McCullough said he thought the commission needed to review the salaries and wages of all county employees.

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