October 23, 2021

County attorney to retire

Karen Howe’s 30-year career includes 7 in current role

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Cortland County Attorney Karen Howe sits in her County Office Building office overlooking the Cortland County Courthouse. Howe is retiring after seven years as county attorney and more than 30 years in the county.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made people ask themselves what are the most important things in their lives, said Cortland County Attorney Karen Howe.

Howe is no exception.

“You realize there’s more than work to life,” she said. She is retiring May 21 from a position she’s had for seven years and after more than 30 years in county employment.

Howe said the decision in part came from the long work weeks, which could be up to 60 hours, and always needing to be accessible.

The way in which work was being conducted during the pandemic — including difficulty during remote meetings — was also part of her decision, she said.

In her position as county attorney, Howe acts as the chief legal officer for the Cortland County Legislature and all departments of county government, she said.

This work includes covering contract and insurance negotiations along with assisting in filing for worker’s compensation.

She also serves as a prosecutor for juvenile delinquents and adolescent offenders.

Additionally, she has a private practice on Port Watson Street, which she will be closing this year.

Howe came to Cortland County in 1986 while studying law at Syracuse University.

She became an assistant public defender in 1990, she said. Howe worked there until 1999, by which time she was appointed Chief public defender.

From there, she transitioned in 2000 to the Cortland County District Attorney’s Office, where she worked in grand jury cases. By the time she left the position in 2013, she had risen to Chief assistant district attorney and was prosecuting drug cases.

She was appointed the county’s first woman county attorney in 2014.

“It seemed like a logical next step for what else I had done for the county,” Howe said.

One case that stands out over her time as county attorney was the resolution of the 22nd Congressional District election in 2020 between then incumbent Anthony Brindisi (D-Utica) and Claudia Tenney (R-Oneida).

Determining and certifying the winner of the race took three months after numerous ballot challenges and fixing of errors, according to news media reports.

This included lost sticky notes on a box denoting challenges and objections and uncounted ballots found in a drawer of a county board of election office.

Howe said she worked with election commissioners in reviewing ballots and challenges along with getting answers to questions from state Supreme Court Justice Scott DelConte, who presided over the case.

Luckily for Howe, issues such as those with the sticky notes and drawer full of ballots didn’t happen in Cortland.

“There were many days that I was happy I was representing Cortland and not some of the other municipalities,” she said.

Ultimately, a state Supreme Court judge ruled Tenney the winner.

Howe also oversaw the donation of 73 acres behind the Tractor Supply Co. in Cortlandville after the business purchased the land and constructed the store, she said. The county hasn’t decided on what to do with the land but it had been proposed as a site for a new county jail.

“I’m sorry to have her leave the county, but she has certainly earned her retirement,” said county Legislator Sandra Price (D-Harford, Virgil). “She has certainly been an excellent person to work with.”

Price, the chairwoman of the Cortland County Legislature’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said she has worked closely with Howe since Howe became county attorney.

Howe, Price said, has always been “prompt and responsive” and always met the needs of the County Legislature.

A committee will likely be appointed by Legislature Chairman Paul Heider (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton), to interview candidates for the position, Price said.

Howe said she still is working out what comes next but wants to focus on hobbies, such as gardening, and her family, many of whom are spread out across the South.

“Maybe spend some time in the sun for winter,” she said.

“I’ve worked with some really wonderful people here and I will miss a number of people that I’ve worked with,” Howe said.