SANTA CRUZ >> County control of the public defender’s office took a step forward Tuesday as the board of supervisors unanimously approved a plan to have public defense attorneys as county employees by July 2022. 

Although supervisors and others have said the law firm of Biggam, Christensen and Minsloff has performed well as the contracted public defender in Santa Cruz County for 45 years, Santa Cruz and other counties have moved toward county-employee public defenders to improve accountability and transparency. Contracted public defenders in other places have not adequately represented clients in part because they have a financial incentive to cut costs, consultants have said.

Biggam, Christensen and Minsloff works with two other firms, Page & Dudley and Wallraff & Associates, to defend people in court who can’t afford an attorney or prefer the services of the public defender. The firms’ contracts expire in July 2022. Defendants will keep their court-appointed attorneys at least through then for “continuity of representation,” said Sven Stafford, principal administrative analyst for Santa Cruz County.

  • County staff is looking into whether the attorneys would have offices in a county-owned building or elsewhere. 
  • A new court case management system is in the works in concert with the Sheriff’s Office and other entities, county staff said.
  • Excluding one-time costs to set up a county operated public defender’s office, the cost of a county operated public defender’s office is expected to equal the $13 million the county now spends on contracted public defenders. 
  • Recruitment of county employee public defenders is expected to begin in April. Biggam attorneys will have the “right of first opportunity” for positions within the county’s public defender office, county staff said.

Santa Cruz County Superior Court could have public defender attorneys who are county employees. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local)

When county staff described the transition plan this fall, Public Defender Larry Biggam, Santa Cruz County Presiding Judge Paul Burdick and others said county leaders had not communicated enough with them and other court stakeholders. They urged the county to slow the process. 

Biggam said during Tuesday’s supervisors meeting that communications improved between his firm and the County Administrator’s Office. He said his attorneys feel like they have more job security. “We need to focus now on the other people the administrative staff and the investigative staff. Because this transition has triggered some anxiety and job insecurity,” Biggam said. “I can’t lose people during this transition, because it will be very difficult to backfill those positions, for obvious reasons.”

Mandy Tovar, an attorney in the public defender’s office, said during Tuesday’s supervisors meeting that she and others are “a little nervous” about the county’s consideration of applicants outside the county. “On behalf of everyone in my office, while we understand there’s going to be a wide range of applicants, we feel like this community has a very diverse and very talented pool to choose from,” Tovar said. 

Bruce McPherson, chairman of the board of supervisors, said he looked forward to the transition. Supervisor Ryan Coonerty said he hoped the public defenders and court system could speed up pretrial detention and have cases adjudicated faster, along with “zealous representation” of defendants. Supervisor Manu Koenig said he was “quite confident” in the proposal,” and Supervisor Zach Friend said the transition timeline of more than one year was “very reasonable.”

Supervisor Greg Caput said he preferred the contracted public defender arrangement and has “been against the whole transition from the beginning.” But, he said Tuesday, “That’s a moot point. I want to have a transition that is smooth and that does not impact cases.” 

Tuesday, Caput voted yes with the other supervisors to approve the transition plan, fund the public defender position in the 2021-2022 county budget and have the staff return in August with an update.

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Stephen Baxter is a co-founder and editor of Santa Cruz Local. He covers Santa Cruz County government.