AURORA | A majority of Aurora lawmakers voted last week to look into the costs of eliminating the Aurora Public Defender’s Office and replacing the department with outside attorneys hired on a contractual basis to represent poor defendants.
The city’s request for proposals comes about a year after a subcommittee of the Citizens’ Advisory Budget Committee, chaired at the time by Republican council candidate Jono Scott, suggested the city analyze the $2.55 million cost of maintaining the office versus leaning more on the state or private attorneys for legal services.
Aurora City Council member Dustin Zvonek sponsored the proposal that the group voted on Oct. 9, saying he would only support a bid to replace the office if it saved the city money, adding that it might not be worth it if the savings were relatively small and that he would also consider how the services offered by bidders stacked up to what the city offers currently.
“This is not going to get rid of the ability for those who would qualify for it to have public defense,” Zvonek said. “If we could save, let’s say, a million dollars annually and provide the same level of service, then I don’t think we would be doing our jobs as stewards of taxpayer dollars by not moving forward and exploring other alternatives.”
While conservative lawmakers voted in support of the proposal, progressives, public defenders and members of the city’s Aurora Public Defender Commission expressed doubt that privatizing public defense would be cheaper or better for defendants who are too poor to hire their own lawyer when facing jail time imposed by municipal court.
Former public defender Michael Carter told the council during the public comment period of the meeting that public defenders view their job as their “calling” and suggested private lawyers who hadn’t signed up for the relatively low-paying, high-volume work of public defense wouldn’t be as dedicated as the employees of the Aurora Public Defender’s Office.
“While the public defender’s job is first and foremost to follow the law, we also become social workers. We become guidance counselors. We become all sorts of things,” Carter said.
“At 5 o’clock, the judge wants to go home, the clerk wants to go home, (and) the DA wants to go home, because it’s their job, and at 5 o’clock, they’re ready to go. But at 5 o’clock, I’m not, because this is my calling. My calling doesn’t change because of the time. My calling doesn’t change because we’ve been here for six or seven hours. That’s what it means to be a public defender.”
David Kaplan — a member of the Aurora Public Defender Commission, which has the power to appoint and remove the city’s public defenders — called Aurora’s system a “national model” and urged the council to include the commission in discussions about eliminating the in-house office.
In response to a question from Councilmember Alison Coombs, George Koumantakis from the Aurora City Attorney’s Office said city code doesn’t expressly prohibit the city from using outside attorneys to handle public defense.
However, chief public defender Elizabeth Cadiz said the code makes numerous references to the specific relationship between the in-house Public Defender’s Office and the Aurora Public Defender Commission.
She also rejected the suggestion by Zvonek that the state’s Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel could take over the work done by her office. The OADC currently defends poor defendants in the Aurora Municipal Court on a contract basis when there would be a conflict of interest involving the Public Defender’s Office.
Of the three other cities that contract with the OADC for public defense, Cadiz said Denver has a limited arrangement similar to Aurora’s, while Northglenn and Westminster have smaller municipal courts that handle fewer cases. Unlike Aurora’s court, Northglenn’s court does not hear domestic violence cases, she said.
Last year, then-chief public defender Doug Wilson, who worked in the state public defender’s office for more than a decade, also said the OADC was also understaffed despite having an “enormous workload.”
“It’s a big risk to take,” Cadiz said Oct. 9. “Your decision will, in fact, affect an entire department full of full-time employees who work here and are good at what they do, and are providing a constitutionally-required service to this city.”
She also brought up the fact that the city has already paid for a workload study that will determine the appropriate staffing level for city judicial entities, including the Public Defender’s Office, which could inform the council’s decision about the future of the office.
Councilmember Curtis Gardner said he thought the council was getting ahead of itself by debating whether to eliminate the Public Defender’s Office, since the Oct. 9 vote was only to request bids.
“(Zvonek) has said several times (that) if it doesn’t pencil out, then we’re not going to move forward. And I’ll be the first to say, it isn’t going to solely come down to dollars and cents for me,” Gardner said. “There’s a lot more to it than that. I want to make sure that the folks who use the public defender have strong representation.”
Meanwhile, Coombs said she was worried that the council would impact morale among public defenders and drive turnover by publicly talking about getting rid of the city office.
“My concern is that in doing this what we end up saying to those folks is, ‘You might want to be looking around for another job.’ And then we end up incurring the cost of recruiting, and training, and onboarding a whole new group of folks. So that actually is not a responsible use of our dollars, to send that message out to our employees in this whole department,” she said.
The council ultimately voted 6-4 to request bids for replacing the Public Defender’s Office, with Coombs, Juan Marcano, Ruben Medina and Crystal Murillo opposed.