The Merced Defense Associates has accepted a one-year contract to represent indigent clients in Merced County, a deal that is less than it wanted but saves the court system from falling into a potentially chaotic lapse.
The decision by MDA administrator Tom Pfeiff follows the Merced County Board of Supervisors’ vote Tuesday approving a one-year contract rather than the three-year deal requested by the agency.
“We have agreed to extend the contract for a year to give the county time to get the RFP (request for proposal) out,” Pfeiff told the Sun-Star on Wednesday. “It’s not in the interests of the county, the courts, or the defendants to allow the system to fall into chaos, so we agreed it’s best for everyone to extend the contract for a year.”
MDA’s contract with the county was set to expire on Thursday. The private corporation for 16 years has been the agency the county turns to when it must go outside the Public Defender’s Office to find legal representation for defendants 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.
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MDA had until Thursday to accept the one-year deal, valued at approximately $2 million. If it didn’t do so, Merced County would have had to contract directly with individual attorneys, which likely would be a more expensive and labor-intensive solution.
County staff are evaluating whether the shorter term contract must again go before the Board of Supervisors for approval, said Mike North, a county spokesman. The request for proposal likely won’t be prepared immediately, he said.
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.
Pfeiff had “no comment” on whether he plans to submit a bid for the new contract next year.
Jerry O’Banion, supervisor for District 5, said the county typically issues requests for proposals every five years or so, and one has not been issued since 2003 for indigent defense services.
O’Banion said he had no qualms with MDA and wasn’t worried about whether the agency might reject a one-year offer. “I wasn’t concerned about whether they’d agree,” he said, “but I was pleased that they did. I think it was the right thing.”
Hub Walsh, supervisor for District 2, was one of two board members who voted against the shorter term. While Walsh said he preferred to give the court system greater stability with a longer term for MDA, he said Thursday it was “terrific news” that Pfeiff agreed to the shorter term.
If Pfeiff had rejected the offer, Walsh said, “I was worried about what alternatives we would need to have in place ... if new (clients) were conflicted out. I was worried about what kind of a system we would need to get in place and get in place quickly.”
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477