Cortland County Attorney Developing Assigned Council Administrator Plan
Friday, January 24, 2014
Cortland County Attorney Developing Assigned Council Administrator Plan
Amid threats of a lawsuit from the Cortland County Bar Association, the Cortland County Attorneys Office is developing a new department to handle the assignment of public defense attorneys in cases where the Public Defender’s office is conflicted and cannot represent an individual.
The ongoing battle between local attorneys and the County over how the County administers its assigned council program has reignited.
For several years the County has struggled with the costs associated with providing public defense attorneys. The County has a Public Defender's office, but there are times when the office cannot represent certain individuals, particularly in cases involving more than one defendant.
Several years ago the Legislature attempted to create a conflict attorney's office who could pick up some of the cases that could not be represented by the Public Defender. Both County Judges rejected the move saying they reserved the the authority to assign attorneys in the event of a conflict. The office was eventually disbanded after the County was sued and the department was deemed illegal.
Last year the Legislature decided to have the County Attorney's office handle the conflict assignments, the County Attorney would contact local attorneys to see if they were interested in taking on the cases and would review the pay vouchers submitted for the work.
Now, recently appointed County Attorney Karen Howe says the current set-up does not meet state regulations, she informed lawmakers last night that she is working with the Bar Association to develop an independent assigned council administrator who would be independent of the County Attorney and Public Defender's Office.
Howe says having her office handle the assignments creates a conflict because her office represents all county departments, including the Department of Social services which is often involved in family court cases.
Howe's is working with the bar association on a plan that would create a separate County assigned defense council department that would be overseen by another qualified attorney. Attorneys living and working in Cortland County would be given first priority for defense assignments. Attorneys would be divided into four categories to match their skill set with defenses cases.
Democratic Legislator John Troy asked why Howe is looking to make changes when the current process is working?
County Administrator Martin Murphy said there have been no complaints from attorneys or clients since the County Attorney began handling  current process was enacted. Murphy disagreed with Howe that the current set-up is illegal. 
Howe did not have any estimates for what the new department would cost, she said she would use the County's management compensation plan to determine salary levels for the assigned council administrator and related support staff.
Howe expects to have a plan before the legislature is the weeks ahead.
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