Thanks to County support, a new department takes shape

One year ago, a rare event took place in King County government: A new department was added to the county’s roster. The Department of Public Defense came into being on July 1, 2013, when nearly 400 public defenders, mitigation specialists, investigators, paralegals and support staff transitioned from one of four nonprofit law firms to County employment.

The creation of the department occurred after a ruling by the state Supreme Court in a long-contested class-action lawsuit; according to the high court, the public defense employees were “arms and agents” of the county and should receive state pension benefits. In the settlement that followed, the two parties to the suit agreed that public defense employees would become county employees on July 1, 2013.

Much has happened in the year since the department’s birth. Voters approved a charter amendment that made DPD a permanent department, dissolvable only by a vote of the people. The Executive appointed 11 stellar professionals in indigent defense to the new Public Defense Advisory Board (the appointments are pending County Council confirmation). Less glamorous but no less important, DPD staff – with support from several other departments – undertook the painstaking mechanics of a complex transition, building a new infrastructure in support of this new department.

Virtually overnight, hundreds of new employees needed ORCA cards and PeopleSoft access. New Employee Orientations were held. Workgroups were created to establish a unified case management system, to address a wide range of IT issues and to develop protocols to manage potential conflicts in the thousands of cases DPD’s staff now handles each year. Tricky facilities issues – ensuring employees have office locations while long-term solutions are crafted – continue to be addressed.

Support for the new department has been phenomenal and ongoing. KCIT staff has spent countless hours on a range of complex IT issues. The Human Resources Division, Facilities Management Division, Benefits, Payroll and Retirement Operations Section, Procurement and Contract Services Section, Business Resource Center and Fleet Administration Division – to name only a few – have all played significant roles in making this transition as seamless as possible. None of this could have occurred, of course, without strong support and leadership from both the Executive and the County Council and their respective staffs. The council held numerous committee meetings and public hearings as it worked out the details of crafting a new department.

DPD’s employees – both those who are new to the department and those who worked for DPD’s predecessor, the county’s Office of Public Defense – have also played a phenomenal role. Most noteworthy, they ensured that the department’s thousands of indigent clients continued to receive excellent legal support and advocacy. “It’s truly remarkable that in the midst of this huge sea change, our employees have not missed a beat,” said Dave Chapman, the interim Public Defender who has helmed the department throughout this transition.

The hard work of a transition of this magnitude is not over, Chapman said. But already, employees are seeing evidence that a unified system of public defense can bring more attention and focus to some of the important issues in indigent defense. As Chapman put it, “The department now has a seat at the table.”

By Leslie Brown, Department of Public Defense