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Officials concerned about Mecklenburg County plan to move public defender’s office back into former space

Mecklenburg County Public Defender Kevin Tully stands among just two rows containing thousands of client files in the public defender's office.  Tully worries his office’s expansive record-keeping system will be jeopardized in an impending move back to its former headquarters on East Fourth Street.
Mecklenburg County Public Defender Kevin Tully stands among just two rows containing thousands of client files in the public defender's office. Tully worries his office’s expansive record-keeping system will be jeopardized in an impending move back to its former headquarters on East Fourth Street. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

A plan to relocate the Mecklenburg County public defender’s office has drawn criticism for its potential cost and disruption to attorneys who handle 20,000 cases annually.

Mecklenburg County in 2008 spent $12 million to move attorneys who defend indigent clients from the County and Courts Office Building on East Fourth Street to another office about 200 feet away in the Judge Clifton E. Johnson Building. That cost included demolishing old courtrooms, renovating the building and relocating the guardian ad litem and city and county human resources staff.

Now, County Manager Dena Diorio is proposing to move Public Defender Kevin Tully’s office again – back into the County and Courts Building they vacated – to make room for a consolidated finance department.

For the public defender’s office, returning there means thousands of case files could be stored three floors below, in the basement, which makes them less accessible. Also, before Tully’s staff left the old County and Courts Office Building, some had worked in offices so cramped they resembled closets.

“We had lawyers who were sharing offices; we had legal assistants” who worked out of other offices, Tully said. “We had outgrown the former space to the point we had satellite offices in different locations.”

The County and Courts Office Building will be renovated to accommodate Tully’s workforce, which in seven years has grown from 49 attorneys and 85 support staff to 62 and 94, respectively. A consulting architect is working with Tully’s staff to determine the space they need in the building, Diorio said.

How much the move will cost is unclear until an architect determines the full scope of renovation, she said. The county said it does not have a breakdown of costs for individual departments being relocated, and there’s no timeline.

It’s like people who remodel their kitchen and spend a lot of money. They don’t remodel their kitchen again four years later.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham

Diorio said the move will put the public defenders closer to the courthouse and other state courts offices, such as the department of juvenile justice. The move also puts the finance department, whose employees work in three separate buildings, under one roof and closer to human resources. The two departments often work in tandem, she said.

“By putting them in one location, there will be a lot of efficiencies for county staff in a county location,” Diorio said last week during a board of county commissioners meeting. “We want to make sure we maximize county space to the extent that it makes the most sense for everybody.”

But Democratic Commissioner Pat Cotham questions the wisdom of spending money to uproot two county departments and return the public defender’s office to its former headquarters after moving them to a better one.

“We just spent money to get them all settled,” she said. “It’s like people who remodel their kitchen and spend a lot of money. They don’t remodel their kitchen again four years later.”

Records relocated?

The moves are part of the county’s ambitious $165 million facilities plan, dubbed “Bringing Mecklenburg County to You,” which involves sweeping changes and renovations to some government buildings. In the mix are plans to consolidate some county offices, such as finance, so they will no longer be scattered across the county.

Some of those ideas stem from a consultant the county hired to create a plan to meet the county’s space needs until 2030, Diorio said. That consultant recommended consolidating and relocating several offices, which would affect almost every county department and some state agencies.

It took 18 months for the county and contractors to design and renovate the public defender’s newer office in 2008.

Tully said he thinks the overall facilities plan is a good one. He’s just worried about how it will affect his clients and staff.

Case in point: The relocation of his office’s expansive case filing system, which now occupies an entire room within walking distance of where his attorneys and support staff work. The files, all of them disposed cases, number in the thousands and take up more than 125 racks.

Tully said he’s been told they will go into the County and Courts Office Building’s basement because it can’t support the weight of the files anywhere else. Here’s why that’s problematic:

Attorneys often use those files – which include police reports, depositions, medical history and other pertinent information about a client with an arrest history – when building a defense. During a recent audit of how often those files are pulled out and then replaced, Tully found that his lawyers accessed them 1,273 times, at most, in a single week.

“There’s no way to predict which of the files we’re going to need,” he said. “We can’t do it by the most-recent, or the first half of the alphabet. We have to have access to the full complement of those files. That’s a lot of going up and down three flights of stairs.”

Diorio said the county is looking at options for the files but “no decisions have been made at this time.”

Tully said he’s been given a possible solution: Mechanized shelves that roll on wheels and compress to fit into tight spaces. He calls the shelves impressive but he’s not sure if putting the files in the basement will eliminate the hassle of retrieving them.

“My concern is that it’s best practices to go ahead and pull those old files but the harder you make that to do, the more tempting it is with the busy schedules to not do it,” he said. “I think it’s a temptation to cut corners and the clients would suffer for it.”

Challenging the stereotype

When the county moved Tully’s office in 2008, the new space came with a large lobby, computer labs, a mock courtroom and open windows that allowed in natural light. Those features were critical in recruiting lawyers from Ivy League law schools and quashing stereotypes that public defenders are second-rate lawyers who can’t land real jobs, he said.

We had clients, when we moved here, say, ‘Wow, you guys have moved up in the world.’

Mecklenburg County Public Defender Kevin Tully

“It sends a certain message to our clients that the lawyers are professionals who have resources and are in a position to fight for them,” Tully said. “We had clients, when we moved here, say, ‘Wow, you guys have moved up in the world.’”

He adds: “It gave them a greater sense of confidence in who was representing them. The office space you have is a reflection of the resources you’re perceived to have.”

There’s no definite date for when the public defenders will return to their former home.

The county public defender’s office’s caseload has increased from 17,000 clients in 2008 to nearly 20,000 last year. At its peak, the public defenders office served 21,000 clients in a single year.

Tully said he’s been told different reasons for the move. Some department directors who toured his office said they heard he had unused space. Sometime later, another county official told him his office was “busting at the seams and that’s why we’re moving you.”

“When (the new office) was built, the county planned for growth,” Tully said. “They made projections based on our history and did build into the space some space for growth. The reality is we grew faster than those projections. We don’t have a bunch of unoccupied offices.”

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov

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