The Merced County Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to extend by one year its $2 million contract with a group that provides criminal defense to people who cannot afford it, but its rejection of a three-year deal leaves the future of the relationship in limbo.
Merced Defense Associates, a private corporation, has held the contract with the county for 16 years and requested that its agreement be extended for three years. But in a 3-2 vote Tuesday, the board of supervisors opted for the shorter term.
Supervisors who voted for the shorter contract said they hoped the county would solicit proposals from other vendors to ensure the county was getting services at the best rates.
Supervisors Jerry O’Banion, Daron McDaniel and John Pedrozo voted for the one-year deal; Hub Walsh and Deidre Kelsey opposed it.
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While the Public Defender’s Office represents suspects who cannot afford to hire private attorneys, cases are referred to MDA when the county public defenders have a potential conflict of interest, such as representing a co-defendant in a case.
If MDA rejects the one-year extension, Merced County may have to contract directly with individual attorneys. The current contract expires Thursday.
Merced Defense Associates administrator Tom Pfeiff was not available for comment after Tuesday’s meeting.
O’Banion, supervisor for District 5, said he could not support a three-year contract because he believes the county should first determine whether other vendors might save the county money.
Last year, the board directed county staff members to solicit other vendors to provide indigent defense services, but that never happened.
Scott De Moss, assistant CEO for the county, has said there are few attorneys in the area who provide the sort of defense service MDA offers and noted that nearby counties also have found there are limited options. The county’s staff, therefore, decided it best to continue the agreement with MDA.
“We reached out to other surrounding counties to understand their programs and what best practices they might have and we might want to utilize,” De Moss told the board. “We quickly learned that indigent defense services are an area that is niche in those counties with only a handful of knowledgeable staff.”
Jim Brown, the county’s CEO, said other counties had few responses when they put out requests for the services. Plus, if only one attorney responded to the county’s request for a proposal, the county would be obligated to contract with that lawyer. A contract with another attorney could be more expensive than the current deal with MDA, he said.
Brown said during the meeting that MDA told the county it is not interested in a one-year contract.
If MDA declines to accept the county’s offer, it would continue working on current cases, De Moss said in a phone interview with the Sun-Star. New cases would be contracted with individual attorneys, likely at a much higher rate.
Walsh voted against the one-year term because he felt continuity in the court system was important, he said.
“The court prefers the system that’s in place,” Brown said.
Kelsey voted on the item even though her daughter, Eloise Kelsey Souders, is a defense attorney who contracts with MDA. Kelsey said it wasn’t a conflict of interest for her because she has no authority over which attorneys MDA grants contracts.
“Do I hire or fire anybody? No,” she said. “He (Tom Pfeiff) can hire or fire whoever he wants. I have no control over that.”
Mike North, a spokesman for the county, said he was “not aware of any conflict” with Kelsey’s vote.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477