Public Defender Contract Approved By Split Vote

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A contract with the Ohio Public Defender’s Office to provide legal services to indigent clients in Athens County was approved Tuesday by the county commissioners, but by a split vote.

Commissioners Lenny Eliason and Chris Chmiel voted in favor of it, but Commissioner Charlie Adkins voted against it, saying he needed more information.

The contract is for fiscal year 2015, which starts July 1. The budget for 2015 includes an additional attorney for the public defender’s office in Athens, which serves Athens County and neighboring counties.

A proposed contract with Athens County was tabled last month, while Adkins looked into questions he had involving the the public defender’s office caseload and whether money contributed by Athens County was being spent only for services in Athens County.

In the interim, the Ohio Public Defender’s office submitted a revised budget and contract that reduced the original county share from $504,088 to $477,988.

One change was that the state office decided to cover 15 percent of payroll costs for Herman Carson, director of the Athens office, to cover the payroll, travel and administrative support related to time he spends attending leadership and planning meetings in Columbus.

The $477,988 is a 5.9 percent increase over the current year’s contribution.

Adkins suggested extending the current contract for 60 to 90 days to allow him time to get more information, including on caseloads.

“I don’t see the advantage at this point of adding another attorney to the public defender’s office,” Adkins said. One concern, he said, is that hiring another assistant public defender will take work away from local attorneys.

Representatives of the pubic defender’s office had told the commissioners at an earlier meeting that the additional position is warranted by the caseload. In a letter June 9 to the commissioners, the director of administration for the state office, John Alge, wrote that hiring another assistant public defender — as opposed to contracting with local attorneys — will also provide the local office more flexibility to cover all kinds of cases and to reallocate work among attorneys.

Eliason said extending the current contract as Adkins suggested is not a good option because if would require the county to redo subcontracts it has with Athens, Nelsonville and villages in the county. Those entities share in the county’s cost.

Eliason suggest that the commissioners approve the proposed contract, then re-evaluate the situation after a year’s experience operating under the new contract.

The vote to approve the contract was 2-1.