Without Conboy, case will be made for government merger - Omaha.com
Published Friday, August 17, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 7:31 am
Without Conboy, case will be made for government merger

Law books line this corner of the Douglas County Courthouse.

Family portraits hang near a signed mug of J. Edgar Hoover. A conference table is covered with legal briefs on locals who have run afoul of the law. There are garage sale antiques — a “Booz-barometer,” a wooden surfer statue, a Magic 8 Ball — and there are empty cardboard boxes on the floor.

Marty Conboy has to clean out his office.

The 31-year veteran of municipal government will retire this month as head of the City Prosecutor's Office. A career of battles for stiffer drunken driving penalties, amid the mire of thousands of other infractions, will end.

Thirteen more of the city's Law Department employees will be eligible for retirement by next year, a handful of them from Conboy's office.

It's not guaranteed that all these employees will immediately leave city government, but the prospect of such an exodus is an opportunity for those who want Conboy's office merged with that of Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine.

State Sen. Brad Ashford, a mayoral candidate who endorses exploring mergers of city and county operations, said he will propose a legislative bill next session to combine the offices.

“I think we're now in a place where finding efficiencies anywhere we can do it is no longer something we think about doing,” Ashford said. “It's got to be a priority. It's become almost a necessity.”

“You don't need a highly paid county attorney and a highly paid city attorney when you can do it with one,” Ashford said. “You don't really need both salaries.”

As a branch of the city's Law Department, Conboy's office answers to City Attorney Paul Kratz and also works with the City Council and Mayor's Office. A merger would most likely change that.

Douglas County Board Chairman Marc Kraft said he has discussed the matter with Mayor Jim Suttle and City Council President Tom Mulligan.

“We are exploring it,” Kraft said. “The meetings will continue. But change like this does not happen at the speed of a bullet.”

Kraft doubts that a combined office would result in fewer deputy city prosecutors, but he said a merger could improve communications between the two offices since they operate on different levels of the Douglas County Courthouse.

Conboy doesn't support a merger. Neither does his boss.

Kratz said such a merger would save little money or time. Perhaps most important, he said, it would undermine the city's legal authority to make laws and ensure that they are enforced. The prosecutor's accountability to the city's elected leaders would be lost, he said.

Part of the advantage of having two offices, Conboy said, is that his staff can deal with the flood of relatively minor lawbreaking that occurs every day. Since 1998, Conboy's office has handled misdemeanor and traffic infractions that occur in the rest of Douglas County.

Kleine's office, Conboy said, can focus on aggressively prosecuting serious felonies.

On the subject of a merger, Conboy says, “The question that should be asked: ‘Is it worth it?' ”

Political conversation about the future of Conboy's office, while inevitable, doesn't change the fact that the office handles a lot of cases.

Here's what Conboy, 10 prosecutors, six clerks and a few other staffers handled in 2011:

More than 110,000 criminal and traffic cases from law enforcement agencies such as the Nebraska State Patrol, Douglas County Sheriff's Office and Omaha Police Department, including charges filed for 1,073 negligent or careless driving cases, 2,107 open alcohol container violations, 3,733 DUI's, and 9,064 cases of driving under suspension or revocation.

Last year's caseload represented a 20 percent increase from the prior year, according to statistics compiled by Conboy's office. That stems from a higher number of traffic violations.

There's also a sort of policy-promoting aspect to the job. Conboy and his deputies participate in a variety of criminal justice-related programs around the area, including Project Extra Mile, the Domestic Violence Coordinating Council and Project Harmony, and attend other neighborhood or community meetings.

Conboy's office has expressed deep concerns about underage drinking and serves as a vocal proponent of increased penalties for drunken driving.

It's busy. Busy enough that the 57-year-old city prosecutor often helps staff the office's front desk.

“There's Marty Conboy,” Billy Roy Tyler, noted lawsuit enthusiast and savvy courthouse visitor, says one morning. “Hide your valuables.”

“Sure hate to see him go,” Tyler's buddy replies. “Wish we could convince him to stay around forever.”

Conboy asks if they've been helped. He listens patiently as both men jump into a brief tirade about the difficulties of a case upstairs.

Conboy talks to roughly 20 citizens a day, by his estimate.

“You kind of get to know them after a while,” he said.

And Conboy's been around a while.

A proud product of Catholic schooling, Martin J. Conboy III attended Holy Cross, then Creighton Prep, and later graduated from Creighton University's law school in 1980. He'd originally planned to be a teacher.

Instead, he took a job in the City Prosecutor's Office in 1981 and began serving as city prosecutor in September 1994.

Part of Conboy's goal in the position has been to accomplish what he might describe as “purposeful prosecution.”

Take a case of child neglect, where children are found living in filthy conditions at home.

“The job should be to try and get (the parent) educated and monitored, so that two years from now those kids are living in a safe and clean environment,” Conboy said. “That's what our goal is. Just to punish them for punishment's sake is not sufficient. It should be purposeful.”

Conboy will collect an annual pension of roughly $97,000 if he sticks to his plan to retire by early September. He's not sure what he'll do then.

He is likely to continue teaching, do some private practice work and spend more time in a place with warmer winters. His involvement with local alcohol-related matters is likely to continue.

Conboy's extensive collection of hand-painted, tropical-themed neckties may see less use, once he leaves civic service. But you may see him playing guitar with his five-piece cover band, The Clockstoppers. He says he has no aspirations for public office.

Meanwhile, an interim prosecutor will be named, and a competitive process to select a successor will begin.

First, Conboy has some boxes to fill.

World-Herald staff writer John Ferak contributed to this report

Contact the writer: 402-444-1068, johnny.perez@owh.com, twitter.com/PerezJr

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