Following much venting in the Barton County Commission chambers Monday night, members of the Barton County Republican Committee unanimously appointed Levi Morris as the new Barton county attorney. The action was taken when a committee fed up with the current County Attorney Amy Mellor held its convention to replace Mellor who announced on Nov. 20 her intention to resign effective Dec. 7.
“There’s a lot of frustration,” said Morris, a lawyer from Lyons who has served in the Barton County Attorney’s office. “There are a lot of expectations.”
Morris was the sole applicant for the post. Historically an active Democrat, he pledged he will switch to the Republican Party as long as he runs for this office.
Applicants needed to be attorneys, but did not need to be from Barton County and didn’t necessarily have to be Republicans.
Now, the committee has 24 hours to forward its recommendation to the governor, who has the final say. The governor has seven days to act, but if no action is taken, which is usually the case, the appointment becomes official.
If finalized, Morris will complete the roughly two years remaining on Mellor’s four-year term. After that, he is eligible to file and run for election to the post.
When the committee met Monday, it elected Dick Friedeman as chairman and he presided over the meeting. Next a member of the committee nominated Morris by saying “he’s a bright young man and would be good for the job.”
The votes were then cast via secret ballot.
“He comes recommended to me by lots of folks who know him,” Friedeman said.
‘A lot of frustration’
Before Morris was named, he was grilled for almost an hour by many in the crowd.
“What are you going to do about what’s gone on in that office the last couple years?” asked Sheriff Brian Bellendir, reiterating concerns expressed by many present. Bellendir and other local law enforcement agencies have been exasperated with cases not being prosecuted in a timely manner and criminals being released on probation after multiple convictions.
“Do you feel you can meet that problem?” he asked. Bellendir specifically called out Mellor and Assistant County Attorney Doug Matthews.
“I want to see it get better,” Morris said. “Everyone is aware it hasn’t worked out.”
“The relationship between law enforcement and the County Attorney’s Office is horrendous,” Bellendir said. “What do you intend to do to correct this matter?”
“We just didn’t stumble onto this problem,” Morris said. There have been issues for many years.
Morris stopped short of saying he’d fire Matthews, noting that would make the department short-staffed and it would be difficult to find a qualified attorney to fill the opening. But, he did say better leadership was needed and he already has some ideas for improvements.
“It’s gotten very personal, very visceral, very heated,” Morris said. Sure, the ball has been dropped by Mellor and Matthews, but often county prosecutors’ hands are tied by state-mandated sentencing guidelines that strongly encourage plea bargaining.
Barton County is no exception to delays and seeing the generational cycle of offenders, he said. He sees the same problems elsewhere.
“In the end, I have two years to make things better,” Morris said. If the voters don’t like it, then they can find someone else.
“I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep,” he said. But, “hopefully, two years will be enough to make a big dent.”
Morris graduated from the Washburn University School of Law in the Spring of 2011 and was admitted to the Kansas bar later that year. He started out in private practice in his hometown, Newton.
In the spring of 2013, he was hired by then County Attorney Matthews and joined the Barton County Attorney’s Office. In Barton County, he was responsible for prosecuting felony and misdemeanor criminal cases, as well as Child in Need of Care cases and Juvenile Offenders.
In 2015, Morris returned to private practice in Lyons.
He was asked why he left Barton County and he said it was time to seek out other opportunities and a private practice looked promising. He was also asked why he didn't run two years ago when the office was open, and Morris said he just wasn't ready for the job at that point.
“I’ve gotten around the block the past few years,” he said. He has handled cases in 20 central Kansas counties and how has an office in Great Bend.
How the process works
Filling a post vacated by a resigning elected officials is a process governed by a host of state statutes. The committee’s action Monday night was just the next to last step.
There are some exceptions, but here is a summary of rules that apply to this case.
If a county elected official verbally indicates to the county election officer (the county clerk) an intention to resign, the election officer must alert the county political party committee affiliated to that elected official, in this case the Barton County Republican Committee.
This notifies the committee chairperson of a pending resignation, but no action is taken.
In order for the elected official to officially resign, that office holder must notify the Kansas Governor’s Office by letter. A copy of that letter is also submitted to the election officer, who sends it to the committee chair.
At this point, the clock starts ticking (on Nov. 20 in this case). The clerk contacts the committee chair who has 21 days to convene a convention of the committee to select a replacement.
What led to this?
On Nov. 20, Mellor announced she would resign at the end of the year, citing an ongoing rift between the county attorney and Bellendir. The conflict stemmed from Mellor’s decision to ask the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to look into allegations that Bellendir had mistreated a prisoner.
The sheriff was eventually charged with a misdemeanor by a special prosecutor and eventually acquitted of the charge. Following his trial, Bellendir called for changes in the county attorney’s office.