Commissioners, defense attorneys disagree on contract pricing

By Dean Wright -

GALLIPOLIS — The Gallia County Defense Attorneys Corporation presented the Gallia Commissioners with a new contract seeking roughly $500,000 for defense services in criminal matters Thursday which caused commissioners to hesitate in agreeing to the new contract.

Commissioners and the nonprofit organization agreed to a contract of $312,900 for services in 2017. According to Gallia Commissioner Harold Montgomery, the highest the commissioners had ever paid for such services was around $316,000 in 2016.

Commissioners have privately contracted with defense counselors for defendants who could not meet the financial obligation of paying for a defense attorney. As per rights granted by the U.S. Constitution, defendants are entitled to defense counsel, regardless of their ability to pay for it. If the county does not reach such an arrangement, Montgomery said the the Ohio Public Defender’s Office may take over such matters.

Past Gallia Assistant Prosecutor and current GCDAC member Britt Wiseman presented the group’s concerns before the commission. Wiseman cited rising crime, new stipulations and procedures in both the Gallipolis Municipal and Gallia Common Pleas Court as taking more time for attorneys to properly meet their legal obligations to provide the best defense possible for clients. Wiseman also cited workload standards in the Ohio Revised Code saying “neither a public defender nor court-appointed counsel may accept a workload that threatens to deny due process of law or constitutional rights to a client…”

“I say all this because we have a professional responsibility to ensure that these clients are being adequately represented and to give some teeth to the Sixth Amendment right to counsel,” said Wiseman. “If we can’t adequately prepare outside of court for court than we’re really doing everyone a disservice and the system is not working as it should.”

GCDAC members cited they recently hired more staff to combat rising obligation needs and that money was used to pay for the needs of liability insurance and more as GCDAC does not serve as a standard group of county employees.

“We tell people we’re here to help you, which is true, and that’s increased our caseload,” said Wiseman. “We all are putting our law licenses on the line every day we go to represent someone and we have to provide the best professional standard as we have to represent the least among us.”

“We went through a bidding process last year and you guys came on and gave us a quote of $312,900,” said Montgomery. “You didn’t quote that just to (get) the contract for one year and then jack it up to $500,000. No, I would hope not. Some of the things you’ve cited are a lot of municipal issues.”

Montgomery said he would have liked to have learned about the attorneys’ concerns sooner as the city also agrees to pay for legal representation with the county. Montgomery said the city currently agreed to pay around $15,000 for such services.

“We’re at the year’s end for our budgeting and we’ve already signed an agreement with the city,” said Montgomery.

Montgomery also cited concerns with loss in county revenue due to recent decisions made by state government surrounding the Medicaid-managed care organization sales tax controversy. Previous meetings have stated the county would be losing roughly $600,000 a year in the future despite receiving a roughly $900,000 one time payment from the state. The commissioner also said the state once compensated the county for 44 percent of its funding in defense counsel and that compensation had recently fallen to 40 percent as of April this year.

Montgomery said the commissioners would speak together before giving GCDAC an answer but that they may need to examine other options.

Dean Wright can be reached at 740-446-2342 and at the Gallipolis Daily Tribune Facebook page.

By Dean Wright