By LOHR McKINSTRY
---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Essex County lawmakers debated Monday whether the county could afford to fill a vacant public-defender slot.
Assistant Public Defender Robert Seymour took a job elsewhere as a judicial law clerk, leaving the $59,160-a-year position open.
The debate about whether to hire someone to replace Seymour took a large chunk of Monday’s County Board of Supervisors Ways and Means session.
“If we had to add our public defender to assigned counsel, it’s much cheaper to have our own public defender,” County Attorney Daniel Manning III said.
He said the Assigned Counsel Program, which operates chiefly in Essex County Family Court, costs about $800,000 a year to run.
In contrast, the County Public Defender’s Office has three attorneys and a secretary and costs about $500,000 annually.
Essex County has one full-time and two part-time attorneys who handle Family Court cases, which include juveniles adjudged Person In Need of Supervision, called PINS, plus child-support and custody cases.
All participants, including spouses and children, are entitled to a lawyer in Family Court, and that’s where assigned counsel is used, for those who can’t afford to hire their own attorney.
“There may be four or more parties in Family Court,” Manning said.
Seymour was hired in 2010 as the assistant public defender. The county added a second assistant public defender two years ago, and Angela Kelley was hired for that position.
“In 2011, this board had to decide on whether to add a third public defender, and they chose to do that,” County Manager Daniel Palmer said.
The Public Defender’s Office has just under 1,000 cases a year and covers County Court plus the 18 town courts and two village courts in Essex County.
Applications for representation go to the Public Defender’s Office and are income-verified, Chief Public Defender Brandon Boutelle said.
“We do get people who do not qualify. Their recourse is to go to the judge, who may appoint them a public defender.”
Boutelle said their busiest town courts are Ticonderoga, Moriah, North Elba and Elizabethtown, with the least activity in Newcomb and Minerva.
Hiring a new assistant public defender passed, 17 to 1, with Supervisor Edward Hatch (D-Willsboro) opposed. Hatch said he didn’t think the county should spend the money, especially since a hiring freeze is in place.
The hiring gets a final vote at the board’s regular meeting at 10 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 7.
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