The Missoula law firm of Mansch, Becarri and McLaverty argued successfully that they were the best bang for the buck and deserved to serve as Ravalli County’s public defenders for the second year in a row.
At a hearing with the Ravalli County Commissioners last week, the firm was praised by District Judge Jeffrey Langton for having done a “yeoman’s” job in his court. Langton said savings to Ravalli County over the previous year were more than $100,000. That was the first year the contract had been awarded to one firm on a flat-rate bid, rather than paying a number of private attorneys a per-hour fee for indigent defense. The county paid more than $300,000 to public defenders during the 1998-1999 fiscal year, but the figure dropped to about $150,000 during the 1999-2000 fiscal year.
The cost-saving has been effective, but problems with the Missoula firm have occurred in Ravalli County Justice Court. The judges there complain they have had availability problems and difficulty docketing court time because of conflicts with the higher court schedule. Both Justices of the Peace Nancy Sabo and Randy Lint were on hand to see that their concerns were addressed. They spoke of the limited amount of time the attorneys gave misdemeanor clients and the delay that the court often suffered because the attorneys were in Missoula instead of in Hamilton.
The law firm members said they were aware of the problem and offered to correct it by adding full-time secretarial staff and a new associate attorney in the Hamilton office. The new attorney will work on the misdemeanor cases and initial felony appearances in justice court, freeing the three senior members to concentrate on the felony cases.
The judges believe that will correct the problems that occurred last year, and all three praised the service and professionalism of the firm members.
The changes will result in a $50,000 increase in the 2000-2001 contract. The previous contract was for a year of legal services at $125,000. The additional $25,000 in public defender costs in last year’s budget came from fees paid to attorneys in cases where the chosen law firm had a conflict of interest. In the present contract, the law firm has agreed that it will pay any conflict-of-interest fees in excess of $25,000.