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Commissioners table public defender increase

Island County Commissioners passed new standards that govern the caseloads of public defense attorneys Monday afternoon, but they tabled a controversial proposal to substantially increase the amount the county pays for public defense.

Commissioner John Dean noted that Commissioner Angie Homola was absent and she wanted to take part in the decision making. He said they will take up the proposed $180,000 increase in the contract at their Sept. 2 meeting.

“Additional concerns have been raised,” he said. “We need to take the time to make everyone comfortable with this contract, or at least get the questions answered.”

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson agreed that they should give the matter “due diligence.”

A half dozen county employees attended the meeting — at least some of whom were there in protest the proposed increase — but left when Dean announced the contract amendment would be tabled.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks raised concerns around the county about the proposed increase in the contract, from $380,000 to more than $560,000 a year, plus a three-year extension. He pointed out that county departments had to make cuts and lay off employees this year because of the budget shortfall. Also, he argued that the contract should be re-bid if such a large increase is necessary.

Tom Pacher, the Coupeville attorney who contracts with the county to provide public defense, attended the meeting, but didn’t get a chance to speak. A memo by Don Mason, the county’s public defense administrator, lays out the reasons that the contract increase is necessary. They include new state mandates that increase the defense workload, more cases to defend and a new adult treatment court.

“In good faith, Mr. Pacher has taken on some of these new responsibilities without an amendment to his contract,” Mason wrote. “Mr. Pacher cannot be expected to continue to do this. He has waited for over a year for the county to address this problem.”

In addition, Pacher said last week that the bulk of the extra money would go toward hiring new attorneys. The new standards for public defense adopted Monday means that he has to hire two new attorneys — one to handle misdemeanors and another for dependency cases — to stay within the maximum number of cases an attorney should handle. The ordinance states that a public defense attorney should not exceed 300 misdemeanor cases per attorney per year, or up to 400 under certain circumstances.

Court Administrator Mike Merringer said it was a complicated process of adopting the new standards, which are based on the Washington State Bar Association’s recommendation. He said the county could have lost a $60,000 grant from the Office of Public Defense if the standards weren’t adopted.

Pacher and the two superior court judges criticized Banks last week for allegedly creating a conflict of interest by speaking out about the matter to commissioners.

Banks defended himself, saying that he was just doing his job and looking out for the county; in fact, he suggested that the judges were conflicted for their role in picking the defense firm.

Apparently Banks and others succeeded in getting the commissioners’ attention. Dean said last Friday that he heard from a number of people concerned about the proposed increase for public defense.

When it comes to the alleged conflict of interest, Dean said there’s a thin line, but he doesn’t think Banks has crossed it. Yet he understands the concern.

“You don’t want the prosecutor’s office to influence the defense attorney’s budget,” he said, “and you wouldn’t want Tom Pacher to mess with the prosecutor’s budget.”

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