Commission makes decision for public defenders
The Emery County Commission made a decision on the contract for the public defenders for indigent offenders in Emery County. David and McKette Allred have had the contract for several years. This year the contract was bid out among local lawyers. County Attorney David Blackwell explained that public defenders have been under scrutiny from the American Civil Liberties Union. They have filed a law suit against the state of Montana as well as counties in Utah. Blackwell said Carbon and Emery counties have not been named in the ACLUs law suit. He believes this is because the public defenders in Emery County have years of experience in public defense.
The ACLU claims that public defenders in some places are the lowest paid and most inexperienced of lawyers and they feel this doesn't give the people they defend a fair shake so they have filed this law suit. Blackwell said that may be the case in some places, but Emery County defendents who need a public defender have been well represented and Emery County was not targeted in the law suit. Emery County officials contacted the lawyers within Emery County and asked them for bids for the public defender contract. Three law offices submitted bids including Oliver and Sitterud Law Office, Mark Tanner Law Office with Associate Travis Blackburn and the David and McKette Allred law office.
During a prior commission meeting all of the law offices were present as the commission opened the bids. Each law office also had the opportunity to speak on their behalf. Oliver and Sitterud told the commissioners that while they are young and new to their law careers they have a lot of knowledge and enthusiasm and energy to use on behalf of their clients. They speak to all of their clients and visit them in jail if need be.
Mark Tanner told of his experience in all facets of the law and also his ability to speak Spanish and he would be willing to work with the Spanish speaking people who need defense.
David and McKette Allred said they have been the public defenders for the past almost 20 years and they have the experience necessary to continue in the job they have been doing. McKette specializes in the family rights cases and David takes care of the criminal actions. They also handle the drug court.
The commissioners listened to all of the lawyers and then tabled the matter at that meeting so they could review the applications and the dollar amounts involved.
When the issue was brought up again at the commission meeting on Tuesday, Blackwell said all of the bids were higher than they thought they would be. The decision was announced to go with the Allred law firm and the Tanner law firm would be used for all conflict of interest cases as well as any Spanish speaking cases.
During the interim period between commission meetings, County Attorney Blackwell contacted the Allreds and Tanner law firms to ask them to lower the fees outlined in their applications so they would fit in the county attorney's budget. Blackwell was concerned that the public defender fees would eat his entire budget leaving no funds available for issues that may arise and also for any cases that go to trial. The contracts were renegotiated and the fees were reduced to fit within the budget. Blackwell said he likes to keep $20,000 in the budget as a cushion for unknown expenses, but with the increases in the public defender budget he will only be able to keep about $12,000 for trials, appeals and other expenses.
Commissioner Laurie Pitchforth said she feels comfortable with Attorney Blackwell's recommendations and made a motion for the approval of the public defenders contracts.
Oliver and Sitterud said they were disappointed in how the situation was handled.
Attorney Blackwell said this is the first time they have asked for bids for public defenders. Prior to this a contract was negotiated with the lawyer to contract with the county to provide the public defender services. Because of the threat of lawsuit by the ACLU, it was decided to go with the more experienced lawyers. He also said the ACLU doesn't really like the bidding process because they think it gives counties an excuse to take the lowest bids.
Commissioner James Nelson said in their trainings as commissioners they were warned about the ACLU lawsuit and counties need to protect themselves against such lawsuits.
The contract for the public defenders will become valid on Jan. 1, 2012 and continue for a period of three years, to Dec. 31, 2014. The county has agreed to pay the monthly sum of $4,700 for these services. In the matter of conflict cases the county has agreed to a monthly sum of $1,500.