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Council in no rush to make decision on indigent defense proposal

The Clark County Council heard more details Wednesday about a proposal to hire two defense attorneys to help with the felony indigent caseload, but didn’t reach any type of agreement.

Chairman Marc Boldt said they will continue the conversation during their Aug. 23 board time meeting.

Indigent Defense Manager Ann Christian and Bob Stevens, the county's director of general services, have proposed hiring two staff defense attorneys who, with Indigent Defense Coordinator Angela Colaiuta, would do felony work. They would have one part-time legal assistant. Stevens said Wednesday that Colaiuta would only spend a quarter of her time handling cases, and together the three attorneys would account for 14 percent of the felony caseload. 

Wednesday’s work session was scheduled after councilors appeared to be caught off-guard by the original request and wanted more information, even after an initial discussion. About a dozen attorneys who have contracts with the county showed up to the work session, and the few who spoke -- Jeff Sowder, Heather Carroll and Therese Lavallee -- assured the councilors that, contrary to what they’ve been told by Christian and Stevens, there are plenty of attorneys willing to do the work.

Carroll, who previously worked in a county public defender's office, said the county's plan to only have one part-time legal assistant and no in-house investigator to help the attorneys was "magical thinking." 

Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik, who was invited by the council to speak, was in the rare position of being in agreement with defense attorneys. Golik told the councilors that if they want to start a public defender’s office they should thoroughly study the issue and go into it knowing the tremendous impact it will have on the budget. Or, he said, they should continue with the contract model and give attorneys pay raises during the next budget cycle, as rates have been the same since January 2009. What they shouldn’t do is what is proposed, and create a two-tiered system in which some defendants will get a county staff public defender who receives more money – and paid vacation, benefits and retirement – than contract defense attorneys, even though they are all doing the same work.

Stevens said having two staff attorneys would bring stability to the contract system.

Boldt said that if he was a contract attorney and learned the county was going to hire two staff attorneys who would be paid more and receive benefits for the same work, he would “feel like a stepchild.”

Lavallee told the councilors that retired Clark County Superior Court judges Barbara Johnson and John Nichols have volunteered to serve on a committee to study indigent defense. Boldt said he liked the idea, and would like to form a group to discuss whether the county should change the way it provides indigent defense services. He added that he would like to have all involved parties have representation in the group, and that they can further discuss the issue next week.  

For a copy of the county's PowerPoint, go here. 

Tags: criminal law, Clark County

Jeffrey D. Barrar, P.S.: Vancouver Defenders Jeffrey D. Barrar, P.S.
Vancouver Defenders