Busy office

Law briefs,  correspondence, documents and folders litter the desk and conference table in the office of John Muench, Corporation Counsel for Barron County. Photo by Bob Zientara

Five years ago, it was discovered that Barron County had something underground that, suddenly, was quite valuable.

It was frac sand, another name for a variety of smooth, white, spherical granules of sand that can be used to force natural gas and crude oil out of the ground. Companies from throughout the United States descended on Barron County, buying mining rights and setting up operations.

At the same time, it dawned on local authorities that after it was mined, that sand was going to have to be hauled to market on county highways – a road network that was never intended to carry that much heavy truck traffic.

Somebody was going to have to pay for the wear and tear on the roads.

The County Board of Supervisors asked for a plan that would be fair to companies and taxpayers. Two officials, Highway Commissioner Mark Servi and Corporation Counsel John Muench, came up with the idea to bill the sand companies by the ton to share costs on beefing up the roads, and to contribute to a permanent fund to help pay for future road repairs.

Helping to produce that plan is one of the things that Muench likes about his job – a job he has now held for one quarter of a century. Muench observed his 25th anniversary as Corporation Counsel on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017.

“It’s very interesting work,” Muench said Thursday, Jan. 12. “There are never any two days that are the same.

“You can get to work on a day when there’s nothing on your calendar, and you think that you might be able to address this,” he said, gesturing to piles of folders, correspondence, and assorted legal documents that covered his desk, a nearby credenza, and part of a conference table.

“But at the end of that same day, you could realize that you haven’t been able to sit at your desk.”

Together with Samantha Mohns, an attorney and assistant Corporation Counsel, Muench’s law office deals with a bewildering assortment of cases including lawsuits in behalf of or against the county, mental health commitments, guardianship, zoning, community services, child support (some 2,600 open case files, according to a recent count), and parliamentary procedure at county meetings – just to name a few.

The job, itself, hasn’t changed much in the two and one-half decades that he has been here, Muench said.

“But as the law evolves, you need to update so that you’re current,” he said.

Still, it helps to have some history on the job, Muench added.

“Every so often, someone asks me, ‘can we do this?’” he said. “I pull a file, and blow off the dust and look for an answer.”

Example: Muench recently referred to a county ordinance he’d written 20 years ago, to establish Barron County’s authority to carry on recycling, when there was a question about municipal recycling services.

“And the Open Meeting Law gets little tweaks, which we have to incorporate into how we do things,” he said. “But then, something major comes along, like frac sand.”

When he started on the job, the Board of Supervisors included many longtime veterans like Al Skinner, Bard Kittleson and Arnold Ellison, Muench said.

Now, a new set of longtime veterans is in place, but the faces are likely to change sooner or later, through retirements and departures, he said.

“You counsel all of them, the department heads, committee chairs, advisory boards,” Muench said. “You do research and legal opinions.”

In a follow-up email, Muench said that his job involves just as much “preventive maintenance” as it does responding to unexpected legal challenges.

The goal is “not only protect employees, officials, departments, committees, (supervisors) and the county as a whole, but, ultimately the citizens and taxpayers,” he said.

“Sometimes we don’t see the benefit of our actions because we did our jobs and prevented problems down the road. But – that is the goal.”

A Chicago native, Muench moved here at the age of 1, with his parents, Louis and Doris (Van Keuren) Muench, who grew up around New Richmond. 

“They went on vacation up here in the summer,” Muench said. “With five kids under age 8, he was looking for a meat cutter job.”

From that beginning grew Louie’s Finer Meats, Inc., which operates a thriving market in Cumberland.

Muench was graduated from Cumberland High School in 1980. He then did two years of undergraduate work at what was then known as the University of Wisconsin Center-Barron County. He graduated cum laude from UW-Eau Claire in 1984, and earned a law degree in 1987 from Hamline University, St. Paul.

Muench clerked at the firm of Steven C. O’Toole in Edina, Minn., while in law school, then spent two years with Minnesota’s First Judicial District (including McLeod and Sibley counties) before moving on to private practice in Eau Claire for two additional years.

He was hired as Barron County Corporation Counsel on June 6, 1992.

Muench and his wife, Cindy, are the parents of one daughter, Shelby, age 21.