LIMA — Asked earlier this week if he’s having fun yet, Allen County’s new Public Defender Kenny Sturgill smiled and said, “We’re getting close.”
The past three months admittedly have been outside Sturgill’s comfort zone. He didn’t go to law school to learn how to transform a shell of a building into a functioning county office space or to research the nuts and bolts of security systems. He’s trained in the practice of law, a trait that was on constant display during his eight years as a member of the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office.
Sturgill is anxious to resume his law career — albeit from a new point of view — and it’s almost time to get started.
Named last December to head up the county’s revamped public defender’s program, he has been busy putting together an office from the ground up. It had to be done methodically and correctly, he believed, if the office was to meet the expectations of himself and others. More importantly, the full-time office is essential to serving the needs of indigent citizens of Allen County who have run afoul of the law.
The county commissioners last October finalized the purchase of a $175,000 building at 417 N. West St. that will house the new public defender’s office. The office for years has been located inside the Lima Municipal Court building and will remain there a few more weeks until the new office is in full operation.
No opening date has been set, but the pieces are finally falling into place. Four staff members — two attorneys and two clerical administrative assistants — have been hired. Job offers have been extended to three additional attorneys. A third administrative assistant will also be brought on board soon.
“We’re getting there,” Sturgill said earlier this week. “We’re waiting on a couple of security system upgrades, some issues with the phone system and filling out the staff and then we’ll be open for business.”
Assembling a staff
Lima attorney Carroll Creighton was tabbed by Sturgill earlier this month for the role of chief assistant public defender. Creighton has practiced criminal law in Lima and surrounding communities for several years and has also done dependency, neglect and abuse cases for the county children services agency.
“I’m excited. I’m happy Kenny chose me as his assistant,” Creighton said. “We both share a vision to serve the indigent defendants of this community in more than just a courtroom setting. We will also represent them with referrals for treatment or whatever else they need to work on their case in a more complete manner and to treat them as real people with real needs.”
Creighton came aboard at an annual salary of $75,000. He was selected from among 17 hopefuls who applied to be part of the newly-configured Allen County Public Defenders Office.
Another piece to the puzzle was added this week when Steve Chamberlain, who had headed up the county’s part-time public defender office for nearly 15 years, agreed to join Sturgill’s staff. He, along with veteran local attorneys Bill Kluge and Bob Gryzbowski, worked as public defenders but handled only misdemeanor cases in Lima Municipal Court in recent years. Attorneys for indigent defendants facing felony charges in Allen County Common Pleas Court were appointed by the judges in those courts.
Chamberlain has long been a vocal proponent of a full-time county public defender’s office and was not hesitant to submit an application to join the new endeavor. He will start his new position April 12 and expressed no regrets about not being in charge of the office.
“Not being an administrator is fine with me,” Chamberlain said. “What I enjoy doing is trial work. Kenny (Sturgill) will be a very good manager; he works well with everybody.”
Chamberlain said the full-time public defenders office was sorely needed “because we were getting fewer and fewer lawyers who can, or would, accept court-appointed cases. We have an aging lawyer population and an attorney base that is becoming more and more specialized. A lot of the younger attorneys don’t want court appointments.”
The veteran defense lawyer said he looks forward to concentrating on felony criminal cases in Allen County Common Pleas Court as opposed to representing clients in several courtrooms in and around Allen County.
“That’s where I’m going to be working exclusively,” he said. “It will be fun.”
Sturgill was equally pleased that Chamberlain joined the new office.
Sturgill said offers have been extended to others among the original applicants to fill the remaining attorney vacancies in the office.
Two members of the office staff — Lee Ann Kinkle and Lisa Rieman — were lured by Sturgill from their administrative assistant positions at Lima Municipal Court. One more administrative assistant will be hired for the office.
Getting the new office up and running has been a long road, but Sturgill has kept his eye on the prize as he nears the finish line.
“I knew it would be a large endeavor,” Sturgill said, “but I want to make sure we start with a good foundation so we can do an excellent job for everyone from beginning to end.”
The cost of doing business
Allen County spent slightly less than $700,000 on indigent defense in 2019, according to Allen County Commissioner Cory Noonan. In 2020 that figure grew to $750,746. This year’s county budget set aside $772,391 for the full-time office, a figure that included a lease for the building and additional one-time start-up costs.
County taxpayers will be responsible for at least 30 percent of the total cost. The state is expected to reimburse the remaining 70 percent of the costs associated with the office. In 2018 the county was reimbursed by the state for indigent criminal defense work at a rate of just 45 percent. That number fell to 42 percent in 2019, setting off a statewide alarm.
In February of last year Noonan told a meeting of the Allen County Bar Association that counties were struggling to provide a high level of criminal defense for indigent citizens. Noonan called it an “ongoing dilemma” around Ohio.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a former county prosecutor, pushed for an increase in the state’s share of paying for indigent defense costs, and the legislature approved an additional $154 million for indigent defense in the next two years. That boosted Allen County’s reimbursement rate to 75 percent in 2020. Noonan said a similar rate is forecast for 2021.
The boost in statewide reimbursement rates for public defenders helped make the decision easier for commissioners to move forward with a full-time office.
“From our standpoint, the driving factor was the overall need of the individuals who required the services of the public defenders office,” Noonan said. “Let me reiterate that the attorneys in Allen County have been doing an awesome job. We were just looking at the efficiency of a full-time office.”
Noonan also expressed appreciation to Lima Republicans Bob Cupp and Matt Huffman, Ohio Speaker of the House and Senate president, respectfully, for leading the legislature’s efforts to provide increased funding for indigent defense cases.
Chamberlain said hourly rates paid to attorneys had for years been stagnant at $50 for in-courtroom work and $40 per hour for out-of-court work. In the summer of 2019 the county boosted those rates to a flat $75 per hour for all legal work and raised the per-case cap limits, helping to ease the attorney shortage somewhat.
Benefiting those most in need
With the opening of the new Public Defender Office, “we will continue to represent defendants in municipal court, in addition to indigent adults charged with felony offenses in common pleas court and indigent juvenile defendants,” Sturgill said. “Anything that’s a jailable offense, we will represent.”
Unlike some counties, the office will not be involved with legal issues involving children services, adoption or child support cases. Attorneys for those cases, Sturgill said, will be appointed by judges.
The reality, however, is that even a staff of six attorneys will sometimes be unable to handle the workload that comes with the criminal justice system in Allen County.
“Our office will take on as many cases as we can, but whenever there is a potential conflict of interest — or in cases where there are multiple defendants — judges will appoint attorneys from outside our office to represent those indigent defendants,” Sturgill said.
Creighton, who withdrew from cases to which he had been a court-appointee and will be reappointed through the new office, said a full-time public defender’s office will benefit indigent clients.
“I am already seeing a difference in that we can now really focus more on client care. There are some things a governmental body can do that a private attorney just can’t,” he said.