by April Scheinoha
Viewers of the televised Thief River Falls City Council meetings will no longer see a familiar face. City Attorney Paul Ihle retired Friday, Jan. 1. He continues to work on some existing legal files, but he expects to complete that work in three to four months. Ihle is being succeeded by his law partner, Delray Sparby.
“There’s the ups and downs, but it’s been a fun ride,” said Ihle, whose legal career has come full circle in his hometown.
The 1968 Lincoln High School graduate always wanted to become a lawyer. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota and his law degree from the University of North Dakota. Ihle and his wife, Carol, planned to live in the western United States. However, fate intervened, and the high school sweethearts began working in their hometown. Carol retired five years ago from the Thief River Falls School District. They have four children, Kate, Lesley, Peter and Joe.
Ihle joined Wurst & McDowell after receiving his law degree. Bob Wurst was the city attorney at the time. Back then, Ihle handled some city planning and city economic development work for the firm.
In 1987, Wurst retired, and Ihle officially became the city attorney. Ihle and McDowell then operated their own law firm. Five years later, they went their separate ways, and Ihle and Sparby opened Ihle & Sparby PA. Nate Haese joined the firm in 2013.
Ihle will miss the people and problem-solving he encountered while on the job. “That’s what I enjoy coming to work for,” he said.
Ihle plans to do some woodworking and traveling during his retirement. He would like to travel to eastern Canada with no set destination in mind. He and his wife are also planning to see their children, who all live outside of the Thief River Falls area.
Ihle also plans to continue to serve on various boards. He specifically mentioned the Thief River Falls Education Foundation Board. Ihle has served on that board for 25 years and is only the second president in that organization’s existence.
A career on the frontlines
The city attorney is appointed, not elected. Ihle noted he was there to notify the Thief River Falls City Council of legal issues or concerns. He indicated that he wasn’t there to help council members with policy. Ihle noted that he may have commented more during Planning Commission meetings, especially when considering past precedent.
As part of his work with the city, Ihle worked extensively with former City Planner Jack Quinlivan on securing enterprise zone credits for manufacturers in the early 1980s. Thief River Falls manufacturers repaid those funds, which are now the basis of various loans in the city.
Ihle also worked with former Community Development Director Don Stewart to obtain additional housing in Thief River Falls. Ihle recalled that the real estate tax climate wasn’t promising for apartments back then. Their efforts led to legislation pertaining to payments in lieu of taxes, reducing the costs associated with constructing apartment buildings. As part of those efforts, Campus Court Apartments (now known as Foxtail Townhomes) and Summerfield Place were built in Thief River Falls.
Ihle has been on the frontlines of many developments here. Besides serving the city, he has also served Northern Pride, Arctic Cat and Northern Woodwork, among others. He was there when the turkey growers formed Northern Pride, when Arctic Cat was reborn and when Northern Woodwork started. Ihle noted he has worked with many clients related to business and planning. He also worked in family law for a time. Ihle also recounted Arctic Cat’s first stock offering and his work with the Northern Municipal Power Agency as highlights of his career.
While those were exciting times, there were other memorable moments over the course of Ihle’s career. He recalled one case that led him and the late John Novacek, a fellow attorney, to make strong arguments in the judge’s chambers. Outside, in the courtroom, Novacek’s client and others could hear the two attorneys. The client was surprised to learn that Ihle and Novacek later went out to lunch together.
Lighthearted moments also dotted Ihle’s career. He and Quinlivan enjoyed playing practical jokes on each other. One time, Ihle arrived back at work from vacation to find his desk chair had been removed. Instead, a toilet was sitting behind his desk.
Ihle got Quinlivan back. Toward the end of Quinlivan’s time with the city, Ihle recruited various business professionals to call Quinlivan every half hour. Each individual had a major complaint. At lunch time, Ihle and Dick Sjoberg, Planning Commission chairperson, arrived at Quinlivan’s office. They started speaking with Quinlivan about all of the complaints he had received. After the third complaint, Quinlivan realized what Ihle had done.
Quinlivan got Ihle back. After golfing at the Thief River Golf Club, Ihle arrived to find a block under the rear axle of his vehicle.