Public Defender presents his case

Published 6:39 pm Wednesday, October 16, 2013

GATESVILLE – Over a month has passed since the Gates County Board of Commissioners decided to no longer participate in a “gentlemen’s agreement” forged years ago that called for the county to pay a share of the costs used to provide space in the Pasquotank County Courthouse for the 1st Judicial District’s Public Defender and District Attorney.

While nothing was ever drawn up to make the arrangement formal, the practice actually began years ago at the old Colonial Office Building in Edenton, which is privately owned, with each county paying $200 per session of Criminal Superior Court.

Since moving to the new Pasquotank Public Safety Building a few years ago, the arrangement now calls for the assessment to be calculated on $12 per square foot plus a special maintenance formula devised by Pasquotank County. Gates County’s share came to over $14,000 per year.

Back in the spring, Gates County officials said they would pay the almost $15,000 assessment, but by the end of summer had changed their minds.

At their Oct. 2 meeting, the local commissioners heard from Andrew Womble, appointed in 2004 as the Chief Public Defender (PD) of the 1st Judicial District (encompassing Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Pasquotank and Perquimans counties). Womble made it very clear at the outset of his presentation to the board that his presence was only to “open a dialogue.”

“I’m not here to tell you what to do; I’m here to answer questions and provide information on how we got where we are today,” he stressed.

At the outset, Womble gave the board some background information, saying that prior to the District opening a PD Office in 2004, criminal defendants were represented using a roster of private attorneys.

Womble noted that due to the large expanse of the 1st District, he created satellite offices in Chowan and Dare counties, with the main office in Elizabeth City, saying his travel budget was the largest among the 16 PD offices statewide.

Two years ago, state officials decided to add the 2nd Judicial District (Beaufort, Hyde, Martin, Tyrrell and Washington counties) under Womble’s jurisdiction, increasing his responsibility from seven to 12 counties.

“(At that point) I had to take a look at my budget and decide how to best allocate my resources,” Womble said. “I decided to close the Chowan office, noting that area could be served by the Pasquotank office. I moved that office to Beaufort County, which now houses six attorneys and serves the five counties of the 2nd District. I believe the closing of the Chowan office is the impetus of where we are today, because Chowan had never contributed money to Pasquotank County for the Public Defender’s Office. When they (Chowan) were asked to do so, that began where we are today.”

Womble went on to explain why the PD offices are located in Elizabeth City and Washington…basing that on population, the number of courts, the number of criminal dispositions and the number of clients.

He cited North Carolina General State Statute 7A-302, which reads, “In each county in which a district court has been established, courtrooms, office space for juvenile court counselors and support staff as assigned by the Division of Juvenile Justice of the Department of Public Safety, and related judicial facilities (including furniture), as defined in this Subchapter, shall be provided by the county, except that courtrooms and related judicial facilities may, with the approval of the administrative Officer of the Courts, after consultation with county and municipal authorities, be provided by a municipality in the county. To assist a county or municipality in meeting the expense of providing courtrooms and related judicial facilities, a part of the costs of court, known as the facilities fee, collected for the State by the clerk of superior court, shall be remitted to the county or municipality providing the facilities.”

Womble said that statute does not direct, in this case, Gates County to give Pasquotank County money for the District Attorney’s Office or the PD Office.

“I can place a public defender in Gates County, but I can’t place a legal assistant solely in Gates County for Gates County,” he said. “(If so) you would have to provide me with all the necessary resources to support the attorney and assistant.”

In the 2nd District, Womble said the counties provide cost-share to support the PD office. Each county’s contribution is based on population. There, Womble said Beaufort County pays the largest share (approximately 50 percent) followed by Martin County (25 percent) Washington County (12 percent) and six percent each by Tyrrell and Hyde counties.

“Fifty percent of my case dispositions are in Beaufort County; 25 percent in Martin and so on….the case dispositions pretty much mirrors the population,” Womble said. “Maybe down the road we could look at this (in the 1st District).

“The 1st District is unique geographically,” he continued. “If we can’t all get together on this issue, then what’s going happen is it’s going to be decided at a level other than this level, and I don’t think any of us wants that; I think we want to be in control of the decision of where our money is spent.”

Currently, Womble said his office receives roughly $2 million annually from the state, to include salaries, medical benefits and office resources.

Henry Jordan, chairman of the Gates County Commissioners, said that before a consideration is made to possibly provide funds for the PD Office, those overall costs (rental space, office supplies, utilities, etc.) would first need to be determined before applying a proportional share by each county in the 1st District based on population, number of cases, etc.

Jordan said Gates County follows the statute by providing space for the District Attorney and Public Defender.

“While we don’t have the technology or the infrastructure for technology for a laptop computer, if we are to consider this (funding for the PD) how do we get around this; not being required to support offices somewhere else,” Jordan said.

“At the outset, I was naive about the effect on the county and its costs,” Womble said. “I only became educated on that very recently with the issues in the 2nd District and what’s going on now in the 1st District.”

Womble said the facilities now available in the Gates County Courthouse are clearly established for the District Attorney’s Office. He is not aware of any other space in the courthouse dedicated for the Public Defender.

“If you wanted to permanently house someone here in a Public Defender’s office, you are talking about dedicating space for two attorneys; they will need access to court files to pull case disposition files and for that you’ll need CAT-5 cable….it’s not a minuscule undertaking.”

Gates County Manager Jon Mendenhall was asked by Jordan to weigh in on the issue at hand.

“This issue has not been brought to management’s attention; if the Public Defender would like an office in the county, one can certainly be made available,” Mendenhall stated. “We have a full-time IT (Internet Technology) staffer and we have IT infrastructure that can be dedicated to that purpose.”

Mendenhall also pointed to the State Statute, saying, “it was clear that the General Assembly has spoken, detailing what our obligation is and it is very clear that we have no obligation in this matter.”

He continued, “From a management standpoint, to talk about what would be a fair allocation of costs, it’s already been handled for us; it’s been handled through Raleigh. This doesn’t need to be looked at again from a management standpoint. We can certainly make office space available (for the Public Defender), we’ll be happy to do that, statutorily we’re require to do that and it can be done if we know how much space is needed.”

Jordan thanked Womble for his input and then inquired, “what are you asking us to do at this particular time.”

“I’m not asking you to do a particular thing; you are the first people I’ve come to discuss this with,” Womble answered. “I want to get on the (commissioners) agenda in all the counties of the 1st District because I think this discussion needs to be had. Whatever decision this body decides to make, I’ll live with it or work around it. If you dedicate office space here, it will be used by the defenders sent here to routinely handle the cases on the court docket. There are not enough cases here to assign a public defender full-time.”

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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