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Moving forward

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The race for St. Lawrence County district attorney is mired in a lengthy argument over performance and aspirations. However, looking at the value of incumbency versus the experience of defending criminals offers voters little guidance as they attempt to make a decision on whom to support Election Day.

Nicole M. Duve runs for a third term, while Mary E. Rain seeks the job. Neither provides much of a case that they can operate an efficient, successful district attorney’s office.

Ms. Duve has had eight years to succeed as district attorney. But her tenure has been tainted by three frustrating trials of Wayne Oxley, a major unsolved murder in Potsdam, high staff turnover, frustrations among town justices over lack of organized presentation of cases in town court, lack of timely prosecution and a general appearance of inefficient procedures. Each is a good reason not to support her re-election.

Ms. Rain, who previously served as the St. Lawrence County public defender, left her position in 2011 after a protracted dispute with the county over the workload in the office and what she alleged in a conversation with Times editors as political interference. Ms. Rain ultimately resigned with a final paycheck of $37,392.08, of which $26,057.68 was a severance payment from county taxpayers.

Ms. Rain has offered various explanations of why she agreed to the settlement. Initially she said she had been “treading water” amid a heavy workload. Then when the county board stripped her of her responsibilities, she said the decision might be rooted in the number of motions she filed on behalf of her clients, generating extra work for the district attorney and the courts.

Now two years later, she has elaborated on this. She told Times editors last week that she felt direct pressure from Ms. Duve, County Court Judge Jerry Richards and County Administrator Karen St. Hillarie to reduce the number of motions presented to defend her clients.

If workload was critical to her decision, then moving into the office of district attorney makes little sense. Ms. Duve tells everyone that the scope of her office is overwhelming and the resources are inadequate despite an ever-growing demand for prosecution.

If the reason was undue political interference from the court, the county administrator and the district attorney, Ms. Rain had an obligation to air those grievances publicly. She did not.

Ms. Duve has been severely criticized about the outcome of the Oxley murder trials. That is unfair. She inherited the Oxley case, and the first trial resulted in a guilty verdict but the decision was overturned upon appeal. The next trial was a hung jury, and finally there was an acquittal.

And Ms. Duve is burdened by the failure of police to assemble a case accusing anyone of the murder of Garret Phillips two years ago.

This race is not about winning or losing court cases. Instead, it is about a district attorney’s office that is efficient, that meets its obligation to bring criminals to trial or to settlement, is a comfort to the victims of crime and feared by those who break the law.

Ms. Duve insists that she has control of the office but that staff turnover is a direct result of uncompetitive salaries in the county budget. That turnover leads to some of the confusion that plagues town judges. She points out how much energy she devotes to the office and how she empathizes with victims.

No one can question how hard Ms. Dune works at the job. But she fails to make a case that the office is well run or meeting the expectations of county residents.

Ms. Rain offers some strategies to make the office more efficient by fast-tracking felony cases to increase the conviction rate. She promises to upgrade office technology by digitizing records so assistants have direct access to all material about any case. And citing her police experience, she claims she will increase cooperation with the many police forces in the county.

Each candidate faces the same problem: St. Lawrence County is so financially strapped that supplying adequate funds for the office to successfully operate is nearly impossible in the short term. The district attorney’s office funding will not grow in the foreseeable future. Thus the winner of this election will have to continue to make do with limited resources that Ms. Duve says have dragged down the performance of her office.

With this election, voters must decide which candidate offers any hope that the performance of the district attorney’s office will improve.

Ms. Duve has had eight years to show voters that she is capable of leading an office that fulfills its responsibilities. She has not.

Ms. Rain has not proven to voters that she can manage an office any better than does Ms. Duve. However, she offers something other than a promise to keep working very hard. Her avowed strategies to refocus the office on felony cases and improve police cooperation may help.

These may be thin promises, but the time has come to allow someone else to prosecute St. Lawrence County’s criminals. It is time to give Ms. Rain a chance.

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