Judges, lawyers battle over budget

A proposal to increase the amount Island County pays for public defense by nearly 50 percent, as well as new standards limiting defense attorney caseloads, has caused some friction in the law and justice system.

Prosecutor Greg Banks has voiced his concerns to commissioners about the large increase, but the two Superior Court judges and the attorney with the public defense contract say that he violated ethical standards in doing so.

They maintain Banks has a conflict of interest since the prosecutor competes against defense attorneys in court and in the county budget. They argue that he has a duty to keep his opinions to himself.

“He has a clear conflict of interest that he refuses to see,” Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill said.

In fact, Churchill even asked the chief justice of the state Supreme Court and another justice whether they felt Banks has a conflict. “Their immediate reaction was, ‘Of course he does,’” she said.

Banks, on the other hand, said he clearly doesn’t have a conflict and that he’s been unfairly excluded from discussion about the proposals.

He admits he did talk to commissioners, both in public and private, about his concerns with the proposed increase in the public defender contract and the new standards.

“I have a role as the county’s attorney,” he said, “and I have a role as a taxpayer and a public official competing for the same dollars.”

Monday afternoon, the county commissioners are scheduled to consider the amendment to the contract with Coupeville attorney Tom Pacher, who provides public defense for the county. The amendment would increase the amount the county pays him each year from about $380,000 to more than $560,000. It also extends the contract.

In addition, the commissioners will consider an ordinance setting county standards for public defense in superior and district courts. The commissioners are mandated by state law to adopt standards, which set the maximum number of cases defense attorneys can handle in a year. The new standards are based on those recommended by the state bar association; a state law says that the county should look to those standards for guidance.

The big increase in the contract will likely cause some heartburn among county departments, especially after the commissioners had to cut $4 million and lay off a few dozen employees this year.

Banks said his concern is that Pacher just won the contract three years ago, taking it away from the long-time public defense firm. He suggested that it should be put out to bid again instead of just handing Pacher the $180,000 extra each year.

“If you are the lowest bidder and you grossly underbid, it cuts out the other people who bid in good faith,” he said. “(Pacher) may very well need another attorney, but I’m concerned about the process.”

Judge Hancock points out that Island County is fifth to the bottom among counties in the state when it comes to spending on public defense. The county spends $8.54 per capita on public defense while the state average is more than $15.

Pacher said the new standards and the cost increase are closely related. He said he will use the extra money to hire two new attorneys in order to stay within the caseload maximum. Also, a line-item cost for investigative services was added to the contract, a new requirement of state law.

Pacher stressed that his attorneys aren’t currently overwhelmed, and he wants to keep it that way.

“The team that I have now, they’re doing work that I am really proud of,” he said, “and they are working their tails off.”

In addition, the judges point out that changes in state law and the courts in the three years since Pacher won the defense contract added a lot of work for Pacher’s attorneys. The defense attorneys are newly obligated to attend certain telephonic hearings, certain juvenile hearings and three different weekly drug courts.

When it comes to Banks’ role in the defense contract, Pacher is upset and feels the prosecutor is meddling where he doesn’t belong.

“It is a truly shameful thing that the citizens of this county have elected a prosecutor who not only fails to recognize his conflicted position in this, but whose sole concern seems to be budgets, with apparently little or no concern for justice,” Pacher wrote in an email.

Banks, on the other hand, said a statute prohibits prosecutors from being involved in the selection of a public defender, but it’s perfectly legitimate for him to advocate for accountability of government.

“I feel some loyalty to look out for the county’s best interest,” he said.

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