Clallam County eyes $1.3 million 1-year contract with Clallam Public Defender

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County is pursuing a $1.3 million 1-year contract with the Clallam Public Defender’s office amid discussions of restructuring how defense is provided for low-income defendants in district court.

Commissioners said during a work session Monday they would hope to negotiate in the coming months with Clallam Public Defender Director Harry Gasnick “in good faith” to address their budget concerns.

Commissioner Mark Ozias said it would require compromise from both the Board of County Commissioners and from Clallam Public Defender.

Ozias and Commissioner Bill Peach suggested setting a specific date in the middle of 2018 when they would evaluate how negotiations are going with Clallam Public Defender.

That date wasn’t decided Monday.

“If by [that date] the feeling is that Clallam Public Defender has been working with us in good faith and is actively addressing the concerns that have been raised,” the county could extend the contract, Ozias said.

“If they have not been willing to look at and come forward with a proposal … that’s going to reduce cost … we’ll be doing something different.”

County Administrator Jim Jones said he had met with Gasnick last week. Gasnick has said he is willing to negotiate a contract on a per-case basis.

Commissioner Randy Johnson said he appreciates the comments he received both in favor and against a proposal to appoint pro-tem judge Larry Freedman as an indigent defense coordinator, who would manage contracts with local attorneys who agree to provide indigent defense.

Because Clallam Public Defender’s contract for district and superior court expires at the end of the year, Johnson said commissioners had “run out of time” in looking for alternatives.

He said Clallam Public Defender has not brought up case-weighting or other alternatives to lower costs.

“That really bothers me,” he said.

Peach said that having “witnessed the tactics used” in negotiating the public defense contract, he has reservations about how conversations will go.

“I don’t like the idea of being bullied, negotiating in bad faith and the idea of ignoring what the client said they wanted to do,” Peach said.

He recommended easing into a transition that doesn’t involve Clallam Public Defender providing services in district court. He didn’t see a need to change superior court, he said.

“In the case of district court, my recommendation is a 6- to 12-month contract with a view toward a different firm providing services,” he said.

Peach called it “disturbing” that Gasnick has not put in a bid for only superior court.

Ozias has said he is open to looking for ways to save money, but there were still too many questions unanswered about whether an indigent defense coordinator would work in district court.

If the county selected Freedman as the indigent defense coordinator for district court, there wasn’t a plan in place for providing defense in superior court.

Superior court judges have urged commissioners to move “slowly and deliberately” on the issue and to follow the recommendation of a committee that met last year.

The Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office told commissioners it might be prudent to negotiate a three- to five-year deal with Clallam Public Defender to provide time to explore the legality and feasibility of changing models.

Ozias said that both sides of the negotiation have missed opportunities in exploring different options.

He also said he doesn’t know if Clallam Public Defender would be willing to enter a contract in just superior court.

Peach said all sides need to work together on tackling the issue.

“Let us come to a conclusion on this issue,” he said.

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at jmajor@peninsula dailynews.com.