Aurora council OKs new committee to delve into public defender office management quarrel

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AURORA | Aurora City Council members Monday night agreed to create a new committee to analyze the city’s independent public defender commission, marking the latest chapter in a lengthy controversy over management of the public defender office that continues to smolder.

The decision, rendered at the regular council study session March 6, comes more than three months after a majority of council members tentatively agreed to shift management of the city’s public defender’s office from the public defender commission to the purview of the city manager.

The new five-person committee will be composed of two representatives from the public defender commission, one member from the city attorney’s office, one representative from outside the city government and one city council member. Councilman Bob LeGare was selected as the council representative for the new committee Monday.

At a recent meeting of the council policy committee that handles public relations, council members agreed the newly formed committee will meet for about six months and convene for the first time in June.

Bob Neu, who currently sits on the public defender commission and requested the formation of the new working committee, told the policy committee last month the new working group will likely analyze how other agencies and other states handle the management of public defenders’ offices.

“We believe that by having a working committee we can look into all of the suggested reporting situations, compare them with what’s happening with our office at the present time and come back with a more comprehensive request to city council,” Jose Martinez, deputy public defender for the city, said Monday. “I think that we, as the public defender’s office and the commissioners  on the public defender commission, believe that we haven’t had our opportunity to be at the table to discuss this, to investigate it and to make the kind of recommendation that we believe would give everybody an important decision before making a decision as to how the reporting system should be for the public defender and the public defender’s commission.”

Aurora’s public defender commission is composed of four practicing attorneys and three Aurora residents who do not currently practice law. The commission, which was established in 1991, has annually opened about 2,200 cases in each of the past four years, according to city documents.

The city came under fire in November after council members voted 5-4 to move oversight of the public defender office to the city manager. The American Civil Liberties Union, the executive director of the National Association for Public Defense, Colorado State Public Defender Doug Wilson, and at least two democratic state lawmakers all condemned the city’s decision to reorganize the public defender’s office. Critics argued that such a structure compromises the integrity of the office by allowing the prosecuting arm of Aurora’s government to exercise financial and oversight control of the public defending branch of government.

“The ACLU of Colorado remains steadfastly committed to ensuring that the city of Aurora continues to respect the constitutional requirement that the public defender’s office remain independent and free to provide impartial, effective defense to their clients without meddling or interference by city officials,” Rebecca Wallace, staff attorney with the ACLU of Colorado, said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “If there are improvements to be made that do not interfere with the office’s independence, then it makes sense to have a committee look for best practices from other cities and agencies.  However, the devil is in the details, and we will be paying close attention to the remaining appointments to the committee. Appointees should be impartial and should have a solid base of expertise in the subject to justify their membership.”

Critics also said the city’s decision last year was prompted by a new state law that prohibits municipal courts from jailing poor defendants who can’t pay fines.

LeGare raised some of the early questions related to the public defender commission, saying last year he was concerned the group was able to meet in a closed-door executive session. The option to hold that type of off-the-record meeting is not available to other city commissions.

The controversial measure only passed a first reading and has yet to be formally approved at a second reading.

On Monday, council instructed Neu, LeGare and City Attorney Mike Hyman to decide how the citizen member of the committee will be appointed. Council member Charlie Richardson suggested the head of Aurora Bar Association — a title currently held by Elizabeth Ford — be appointed to the group, while LeGare suggested council members could propose local business or legal leaders to serve on the committee.