City looks to formalize hiring of conflict defender

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OCEAN CITY — Looking to standardize and formalize the process of hiring what is deemed a conflict public defender when the city’s contracted public defender, Douglas Walker cannot serve due to a conflict of interest, City Council unanimously passed a resolution at a Nov. 29 meeting approving a contract for professional services.

As of Monday, the city received three responses: Bonnie D. Putterman, Swift Law Firm and Teitler and Teitler. According to the resolution, each public defender hired by the city for conflict purposes will be paid a flat fee of $300 for each case.

Explaining the resolution to council at the meeting, City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said the city has, in the past, utilized an informal procedure when dealing with conflict defenders.

There are times, she said, that Walker is unable to represent a defendant because of a conflict of interest; sometimes he has previously represented someone adverse to the defendant, or quite frequently, she said, there is more than one defendant in a case and their interests are not identical, so he cannot represent more than one defendant. In these cases, a conflict defender must be hired.

On other occasions, Walker cannot attend a hearing, for whatever reason, McCrosson said.

He may have a scheduling problem, he may have a death in the family, illness, he could be on vacation, she said. In those cases, a substitute defender is hired, and Walker must take care of those cases.

When Mayor Jay Gillian took office in July 2010, McCrosson said he asked her to formalize the public defender conflict/substitute process.

We wanted to know who the conflict defenders were and what they were going to be paid, she said. In the past, there were billing errors where the substitute defender was billing the city as a conflict defender.

Walker was unable to serve recently because he flew to Washington State to be with his dying father. McCrosson said a public defender was hired to replace him and the replacement defender billed the city instead of Walker; and the city paid the bill.

The mistake was caught, the money refunded and the bill sent to Walker.

The substitute attorney made a billing mistake, McCrosson said.

“If it’s a substitute public defender, it gets billed to Mr. Walker. There was a mistake on the part of the substitute attorney and it was corrected. It was straightened out,” she said. “Was a mistake made? Yes. Did we catch it? Yes.

“It was corrected and I can assure you that this will not happen again.”

This did not sit well with resident Ed Price, who, during public comment on consent agenda items, said he was against anything to do with the resolution. He stated that he believes that there are more billing errors that have not yet been cleared up.

Councilman Keith Hartzell said he, too, had issues, particularly with the billing error. He said he could not understand how the error occurred and that if it were to happen to a business, those that made the error would not be hired again.

McCrosson explained that it was a mistake that had been corrected, and had nothing to do with the city’s need to formalize the process of hiring conflict and substitute defenders. McCrosson assured Hartzell that this would not happen again.

Hartzell said his concern was with a billing error, which had nothing to do with the resolution.

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