Local attorneys criticized Davison County's decision to enter into a new public defender contract without hearing public input and voiced concerns at the county commission meeting on Tuesday.
As reported by The Daily Republic, the commissioners unanimously approved a three-year agreement exclusively with two local law firms, Alvine and Weidenaar, and Stiles and Papendick, last week after meeting several times behind closed doors. About six weeks ago, the commission was presented with a new proposal for public defense work for consideration, confirmed County Chair Brenda Bode.
"Each individual has to assess their own position and the clients they serve," Bode said of the public defenders' responsibility. "They get to choose who they represent, how active they are. That's an individual choice."
Attorney Dava Wermers of Wantoch Law Office said during Tuesday's meeting that she had previously built part of her practice on public defense work through Davison County, generating about $60,000 of revenue annually for the Mitchell firm.
Wermers criticized the county's decision and stated that dealing exclusively with two firms for public defense work would not only hurt her personally but could also drastically impact the county's court dockets, causing more delays in future proceedings and creating a scenario where public defenders do not have enough time to see their clients.
"I'm disappointed. In the past years, the county always asked for bids," Wermers said. "The way this was done may have been legal, but it does not make it right. It seems like politics, and it was done in secret."
"We took it to the state's attorneys to confirm that we did not have to go that route and have an open bid," Bode said. "It's a three-year contract, with the fee remaining the same the first and second year, and it adds a small increase in the third year."
If one of the attorneys listed in the contract cannot fulfill the terms of the contract, the agreement can be renegotiated and does not automatically carry over to the law offices with which the contract was entered.
For almost 20 years, the county had a contract with E. Steeves Smith, which was negotiated and allowed his firm to continue as the county's indigent defense representation. Approximately a year ago, the contract presented by Smith's firm was not accepted by the commission, and a choice was made to use an alternative method.
The county started utilizing a rotation system for public defense work, in which attorneys could submit their name to the clerk of courts to be considered by the bench. On this rotating system, the county collected bills from the attorneys that were called on to cases, rather than paying a set fee to a firm.
In other business, the commissioners:
• Heard a report by Deputy Treasurer Dave Beintema on reclassification and introductory wage increases.
• Continued the discussion about the Davison County 2018 Jail Report.
• Heard an update from Veteran Services Officer Craig Bennett.
• Set the date for the supplemental budget hearing to be Feb. 12 at 9:45 a.m.
Approved the following new hires:
• Treasurer's Office: Deputy, Tonya Ford, at $17.40 per hour, effective Jan. 29, and Deputy II, Rachel Soulek, at $16.90 per hour, effective Feb. 23.
• Register of Deeds Office: Deputy II, Dawn Roth, at $16.87 per hour, effective Feb. 2, and Deputy I, Danna Kolbeck, at $17.91 per hour, effective Jan. 29.
• Jail: Keyelle Herrick, from part-time to full-time remaining at $17.45 per hour, effective Jan. 29.
• Sheriff's office: Deputy, Jake Berry, transfer from Jail, at $18.97 per hour effective Jan. 29; Deputy Sheriff Josh Peterson will be resigning from his full-time position effective Jan. 31, becoming part-time as needed, remaining at $21.70 per hour.