Benton County OKs defense attorney contracts

By Paula Horton, Tri-City HeraldDecember 23, 2012 

New contracts with five defense attorneys recently were approved by Benton County commissioners to fill spots left vacant when several public defenders resigned in a contract dispute.

Shelley Ajax and Karla Kane are two of the new attorneys who will be representing Benton County Superior Court defendants who can't afford to hire their own lawyers.

Ajax and Kane have had public defense contracts in Franklin County Superior Court.

Catherine Harkins and Ryan Swinburnson, who had indigent defense contracts with Benton County District Court, also accepted jobs in Superior Court.

The fifth contract went to Gary Metro. He has been a public defender in Superior Court but was among six attorneys who resigned in September after a breakdown in negotiations about compensation and new caseload restrictions mandated by the state Supreme Court.

Metro applied for the new contract after he attempted to rescind his resignation but still was terminated by commissioners.

The other attorneys who resigned were Sal Mendoza Jr., Larry Zeigler, Dan Arnold, Kevin Holt and Scott Johnson.

Arnold, Holt and Johnson also tried to take back their resignations, but their contracts still were terminated. They then settled their contract disputes through mediation with the county.

The settlement agreements cost the county almost $48,000 after officials agreed to pay Arnold for one extra month, while Holt and Johnson were given three months of pay.

The county also paid $2,172 for legal representation in mediation and $2,090 to Richland lawyer Jan Armstrong, who served as the mediator, according to resolutions approved by commissioners.

The new caseload restrictions, which go into effect in September, mandate full-time attorneys take no more than 150 felony cases or 300 misdemeanor cases each year.

Previous Superior Court defense contracts paid $82,105 a year and set a 150-case cap for attorneys. The new contracts let attorneys decide how many cases they will take up to a maximum 140 cases.

Harkins and Swinburnson set their limit at 125, while Ajax, Kane and Metro agreed to the 140-case cap.

A "point" system was devised to help track caseloads, with some cases such as serious felonies or complex cases, counting as more than one point.

The new contracts were effective Dec. 1 and expire Dec. 31, 2014. Attorneys will get $580 per case point next year and $610 per case point in 2014.

Any appointments received this month will get paid at $547 per case point.

The four other attorneys on the Superior Court indigent panel are Michelle Alexander, Sylvia Cornish, Alexandria Sheridan and Sam Swanberg.

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service