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County trying to hire justice of the peace quickly

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| January 21, 2009 11:00 PM

Lincoln County commissioners hope to have a new justice of the peace by the end of next week, an ambitious goal as applications are being accepted until Tuesday.

Interim justice of the peace Terry Utter, who took on the role Oct. 29, agreed to stay only until Feb. 1 so that he can tend to responsibilities at his Eureka ranch.

“Once we appoint somebody, Mr. Utter is back to his ranch,” said County Commissioner John Konzen. “He just did this as a favor and we’re very appreciative of his efforts.”

As of Wednesday, six days before applications are due, the county received six letters of interest, according to Bill Bischoff, executive assistant for the commissioners.

The commissioners expect more applications to come in as the deadline draws nearer.

“We’ve had numerous inquiries about the position,” said Commissioner Tony Berget. “It’s shocking that we’ve only had six (applications) so far. We’re anticipating getting closer to 20 or 30.”

Konzen added that he has received calls from people recommending applicants.

“We are having a lot of comments from the public,” he said. “There is some lobbying going on, which is good – we need to know what the community thinks about (applicants).”

With applications due by Tuesday at 5 p.m. and a deadline to have a new justice of the peace the following Monday, commissioners will narrow the applicants down to three to five people, start reference checks Wednesday morning, perform interviews Thursday and be ready to offer the job Friday.

“Feb. 1 is the date we’re shooting for, but it’s not a drop-dead date,” said Berget. “It’s more important that we get a good judge than we hit the date.”

The new justice of the peace will finish the next two years of Gary Hicks’s term and be up for election in 2010. While the legal process of appointing a justice of the peace is somewhat hazy to county, Commissioner Marianne Roose foresees interviewing candidates in the same way meetings are held, open to the public.

“Everything we do as a board is public, except personnel issues,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing it any other way.”

The Montana Supreme Court removed Hicks from office Dec. 30 after he was accused of making inappropriate sexual advances toward female defendants.