Jefferson County has a new county attorney.
Well, sort of.
Ellen Wakeman was named county attorney Feb. 24 after serving for more than two years as the acting county attorney. She stepped in when her predecessor, Frank Hutfless, resigned in January 2007 and has been running the show ever since.
“I’m very optimistic about a new era for Jefferson County,” Wakeman said.
Jeffco hired Wakeman in 1987 as an assistant county attorney. Prior to that, she had worked for Holme, Roberts and Owen, an international law firm with offices in downtown Denver. She became Jeffco’s deputy county attorney in 1992, and has served as acting county attorney twice.
Wakeman clashed with former commissioner Jim Congrove and was never officially appointed as the county attorney after Hutfless left. After Congrove left office in January, things changed.
“I think I now have the support of three commissioners, which is really helpful,” Wakeman said. She declined to discuss the specific conflicts with Congrove, who was unavailable for comment.
“Ellen has been extremely effective in an acting capacity,” the county commissioners said in a statement. “She has an outstanding reputation throughout the state as an expert in legal matters and statutes related to county governments. We are very pleased she has agreed to serve as our county attorney in a permanent capacity.”
Wakeman’s new title comes with a nearly 8 percent salary increase. She will now earn $145,398 annually, after making $135,000 since 2005. In her last year as deputy county attorney, Wakeman earned $122,500.
Wakeman has a lot on her plate. She manages 36 employees, most of whom are attorneys. They provide general legal counsel to the commissioners, sheriff’s office and the other county departments on issues from health and environment matters to law enforcement, land use and human resources.
She says her office will begin using a new software system that will automate its documenting system. “We will try to save some money that way,” Wakeman said.
The ailing economy is increasing the workload in the office.
“When times are bad, people beat their kids,” Wakeman said. “On the human services side, there’s lots of business in child protection.”
She also has lingering litigation to deal with.
“I’m still hoping eventually to resolve litigation left over from the last four years, but that will take awhile,” Wakeman said. Those issues include Congrove being accused of illegally wiretapping and harassing longtime county critic Mike Zinna, among others.
Wakeman will also have to navigate how to advise the county’s elected officials on new laws like Amendment 54, which was approved by Colorado voters in November 2008. It prohibits county contractors from donating to political campaigns, and Wakeman said the law is too broad.
“The real wrinkle is that lots of people with whom we do business have large boards of directors that are politically active,” Wakeman said.
The county is also pushing legislation at the state Capitol that would make it easier to become “home rule,” which would give Jeffco more power to create and enforce its own laws. Current law requires two elections for a county to become home rule: one to establish a charter commission to create new laws, and the next to adopt the charter. The new legislation would require the second election only. Wakeman said the commissioners want to have multiple public hearings throughout the process, which may start as early as this summer.