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Council questions proposal for public defender's office

The Clark County Council has hit “pause” on a proposal to start a county public defender’s office.

Last week, contract defense attorneys – who were wondering why the county hadn’t put out its usual calls for supplemental contracts to make sure felony cases would be covered through the end of the year – were told the county would be starting a small public defender’s office. The Clark County Council would approve the plan at its July 18 meeting and it would be effective Sept. 1. The county would hire two full-time attorneys to join its indigent defense coordinator in handling a portion of felony cases; the three attorneys would be assisted by a part-time legal assistant.

The day before the July 18 council meeting, Indigent Defense Manager Ann Christian pulled the item from the agenda and said it would be set over a week.

On July 19, Christian met with councilors and explained she pulled the request because she first wanted to meet with Clark County Superior Court judges. She said she met with the judges and answered their questions. She told councilors she would like her proposal to be on the July 25 agenda.

But that wasn’t the end of the discussion, and the proposal, which Christian emphasized to councilors was net neutral, won’t go to a vote July 25. Instead, the councilors first want a work session with Christian to have a broader discussion about indigent defense services. That work session has yet to be scheduled.

Christian was asked by interim County Manager Jim Rumpeltes to explain the proposal.

Christian said she was asking that, for the first time, for part of the felony caseload to be handled by county employees. She said she wanted to hire two full-time attorneys and a part-time legal assistant. She said her proposal is “absolutely budget neutral,” with the exception of one-time expenses for office improvements.

Christian said the felony caseload hasn’t increased, but the number of attorneys applying for contracts has been dropping. She said this year the county lost seven of its most experienced lawyers, and while three new attorneys received contracts they are not able to replace the experienced attorneys who were able to handle large caseloads of serious offenses. 

Christian said current attorneys will be done with their contracts by October, and she won’t have enough attorneys to be able to finish out the year.

Christian said she would hire one relatively new attorney who could handle less-serious felony cases, while the other attorney and Angela Colaiuta, the indigent defense coordinator, would handle the most serious crimes. She said the second full-time attorney could handle the types of cases which are the least favorite among contract attorneys, which are sex offenses in which the client faces life in prison.

Councilor Jeanne Stewart asked Christian how long this proposal would be budget neutral. Christian said she could hire an additional four attorneys in 2019-2020 and it would still be budget neutral.

Stewart said if attorneys aren’t applying for contracts, the county should find out why.

Deputy County Manager Bob Stevens said one factor is that the county hasn’t given raises to contract attorneys in a decade.

Chris Horne, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor, told the councilors that this proposal is a “fairly significant change to how the county does business,” and they may want to hear input from defense attorneys. The issue of paying them more money isn’t going to go away, Horne said, particularly if the number of attorneys willing to do contract work continues to decrease.

Stewart said she doesn’t have enough information to move forward to a public hearing, and asked for a work session. Councilor Julie Olson echoed Stewart’s concerns. Councilor Eileen Quiring asked why the county hasn’t given contract attorneys a raise in 10 years, then added that is a budget consideration for councilors. 

The discussion, which took place during the council’s weekly board time, was audio recorded. To listen, go here. The discussion starts at approximately the 44:30 mark. 

Tags: criminal law, Clark County

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