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Santa Cruz County Supervisors Approve Public Defender Transition Plan

County officials say new office will help reduce costs

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a transition plan to create a county-run public defender’s office, which includes hiring staff and a chief public defender.

County officials are now in talks with attorneys working for Biggam, Christensen and Minsloff (BCM), the law firm that has provided indigent defense services to the county since 1975. Those attorneys have the right of first opportunity at employment in the new office, and are expected to have job offers by September.

Larry Biggam, who runs BCM, asked the supervisors to also consider his administrative staff and investigators when making hiring decisions. 

“This transition has triggered some anxiety and job insecurity,” he said. “I can’t lose people during this transition, because it will be very difficult to backfill those positions.”

BCM Attorney Mandy Tovar asked that county officials focus on local attorneys. 

“We are very much interested as a group in having somebody who knows our community, who knows our clients, who knows this county in a way that we do,” Tovar said. “We’ve all been very much dedicated to this work, and we are nervous about the transition, given all the talk about opening it up to people outside this community.”

The county is expected to select a chief public defender by Oct. 1. The transition will be complete by Jan. 1, 2022, and the new public defender’s office will take over fully the following July.

In November, the supervisors approved an addition to the county ordinance that allowed for the shift.

As part of the plan, the county will also hire a vendor to provide a new case management system. A request for proposal will be sent out in April, with a decision expected by June.

It is not yet clear where the new public defender office will be located. The county is considering several options, including space within existing county facilities.  

The county’s contract with BCM is set to expire in 2022. Contracts for two other law firms also appointed to provide indigent criminal defense—Page, Salisbury & Dudley, and Wallraff & Associates—expire at the same time, but the county is extending those contracts for one year to allow the transition to occur. At that time, the county will consider creating an alternate defender’s office or modifying the existing contract services. 

The new office is expected to fit into the $13 million public defender’s budget, with some one-time costs anticipated to support the transition. Those numbers will be reflected in a June budget report.

The transition will return to the supervisors in August for an update.

Under the plan, the supervisors will appoint a chief public defender to oversee public defender attorneys, all of whom would be county employees. 

County officials say the new office will help reduce costs and allow the county to hire 15% more attorneys. They also say that it would give clients better access to county organizations such as the Health Services Agency, Human Services Department and Probation Department.

In making the transition, county officials have held meetings with the Superior Court, as well as the BCM, Page and Wallraff firms, and public defenders officers statewide. 

Board chair Bruce McPherson stressed that the transition to a county-run public defender’s office was not due to the performance of BCM, whose service he called “outstanding.” 

“They’ve been nothing short of fantastic,” he said.

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