A bicounty skirmish sent jitters through the Benton-Franklin court system this week when public defenders representing some defendants found themselves working without contracts.
The dustup involves the joint Office of Public Defenders for Benton and Franklin Counties. The problem was administrative and did not affect defendants.
The counties jointly offered constitutionally mandated defender service in district and superior court under a 2007 agreement in which Benton County runs the office and bills Franklin for its share of the work.
The Benton County Board of Commissioners notified Franklin County Chairman Brad Peck last spring that it would end the agreement at the end of 2015.
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In the June 7 letter, Benton County leaders said Eric Hsu, manager of the public defenders office, needed to devote his time in 2016 to Benton County matters because of increased caseloads and new criminal justice programs.
The public defenders office handled about 700 District Court cases and 120 Superior Court cases per month for Benton County in 2014, about 75 percent of the office’s total workload. Benton County allocated $5.1 million for public defense work in its 2015-16 budget. Franklin County allocated about $1 million for public defense in its 2015 and 2016 budgets.
We are certainly willing to pay our fair share of those costs.
Keith Johnson, Franklin County administrator
The agreement expired as planned Dec. 31, with the expectation Keith Johnson, Franklin County administrator, would approve contracts. That didn’t happen, and court opened for the first time Monday with no agreements in place.
“It’s my oversight,” Hsu said, adding that the problem is fixed.
Representatives from both counties say it was an unfortunate first-day glitch that had no impact on defendants.
The right to a public defender is among the best known in the U.S.
“One of the things that is not going to happen is that a defendant will walk out without a public defender,” Hsu said.
The situation will be short-lived. A three-month interim agreement is in the works and should restore joint operations by Feb. 1. That will give the counties time to negotiate a longer-term agreement that better reflects current caseloads and costs.
For January, Benton County will bear the full cost of Hsu’s salary, which is about $100,000 per year. It normally bills Franklin County for a share.
Johnson, the Franklin County administrator, said it’s possible the county could establish its own standalone public defender office. For now, he’s optimistic the bicounty arrangement will be revived quickly.
Franklin County understands Benton felt the old agreement didn’t fairly apportion overhead costs, Johnson said.
“We are certainly willing to pay our fair share of those costs,” he said. “That hadn’t been articulated in the prior agreement.”
Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell