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Schuyler County Legislature Tables Resolution to Hire NYC Firm


A proposed contract with Neighborhood Defender Service approved by the Schuyler County Legislature’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee has been tabled by the county legislature.

In a letter sent to Finger Lakes Daily News (see below), Attorney Jessica Saks said the proposed deal would have seen the New York City firm replace the county’s present Public Defender’s Office at a rumored cost of more than $1.2 million for 2023 and $1.4 million for 2024. Saks also said the proposed contract increases county expenditures by approximately a half-million dollars as the present Public Defender Budget over the past several years. One day after Saks sent the letter, the County Legislature met to not only table the initial resolution but approved another resolution to advertise for a Public Defender.

Statement from County Legislature Chair Carl Blowers (July 25th):  As part of its constitutional mandate to provide indigent legal services, the Schuyler County Legislature is reviewing a proposed contract with Neighborhood Defender Services, a nationally-known legal services organization, located in New York City. At the same time, the county will advertise the public defender position to gauge any interest from qualified attorneys. Thereafter, a decision in the best interest of the county will be made at a future meeting of the county legislature.

Schuyler County Attorney Steven Getman also sent us a response to the letter Saks wrote:

The letter by Jessica Saks related to a potential contract with Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS) for indigent defense services contained several inaccuracies and/or misunderstandings, some of which are surprising, given her experience as a local attorney.   To the extent she chose to address the county attorney’s office by name, and subject to attorney-client privilege, I will try to correct them here.

Saks erroneously implied that the NDS contract originated with the county attorney’s office. However, Saks was sitting in the audience when a representative of NDS stated her agency was first approached about entering into this agreement by the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services (NYS ILS). NYS ILS, as Saks presumably knows, is charged with the duty to monitor, study and make efforts to improve the quality of legal services provided to indigent persons. NYS ILS supported, and continues to support, the NDS agreement. That support includes anticipated grants and other financial incentives to the county which offset many of the cost concerns in Saks’ letter.

As a lawyer, Saks no doubt knows that the county legislature, not its attorney, is the policy-making authority of county government. The legislature, as with any client, makes the ultimate decision whether to execute a contract. The duties of the attorney are simply to review and draft agreements and advise as to proper form, possible legal pitfalls and compliance with the law. As to Saks’ concern about “adversarial” litigation between the public defender’s and county attorney’s offices, she is no doubt well aware that the county attorney’s office represents the public defender’s office in civil and contract matters, while also representing other county agencies in litigation involving the public defender. In fact, Saks frequently participates in such cases, and has done so for years, without ever once raising a concern as to some perceived conflict.

Finally, Saks’ argument that the county is not receiving “fair market rental value” is misplaced. Saks bases this on standard language in many real estate documents, that the price is “one dollar and other good and valuable consideration.” One would be hard-pressed to find an attorney who is unaware of that custom and it is odd that Saks would not have considered that custom in drafting her letter.

I regret that Saks felt compelled to weigh in with what appears to be partial facts or misconceptions. I hope this response will allay some of her concerns, as well as any from the public who may have been unduly alarmed by portions of her letter.

Steven J. Getman

Schuyler County Attorney

Here is the letter sent by Jessica Saks:

Dear Sir and/or Madam;
This morning, July 24, 2023, the Schuyler County Legislature’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee approved a proposed contract with Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS) for a whopping cost of between $1,266,646.00 for this year and $1,399,725.00 for next.  There was only one dissent.
This contract, if approved by the full legislature, would serve to abolish the Schuyler County Public Defender’s Office and its present employees’ jobs. NDS would then be responsible for all personnel decisions, to include hiring 1 managing attorney, 4 staff attorneys, and other support staff such as secretaries, investigators, and social workers. The proposed contract increases county expenditures by approximately a half-million dollars as the present Public Defender Budget over the past several years ranges from $800,000.00 to $882,000.00. Despite the significant increase in county costs, the proposed contract only requires NDS to pay $1.00 to rent office space from the county.
Furthermore, the Committee moved this forward knowing full well the position for Chief Public Defender was never advertised and that there were and currently are local attorneys interested in the position that has remained vacant since May 2023.
The Committee approved the contract on the advice of County Attorney Steven Getman, who introduced the contract during this morning’s committee meeting, despite the fact that Attorney Getman and his office are adversaries of the Schuyler County Public Defender’s Office on a daily basis.  The proposed contract was upheld notwithstanding this clear conflict of interest, and also despite clear objection from members of the general public, including a request to table the matter for future discussion. Members of the Public Defender’s Office were also present and noted their objection to the proposed NDS agreement.
Schuyler County is a small, rural community where everyone knows everyone and outsourcing public defense services to an organization based out of New York City does not make sense. In many important respects, NYC is much different than Schuyler County and requires different solutions. Also, the NDS contract will effectively decentralize office management and add unnecessary layers to the management and decision-making process as all the NDS corporate officers will remain located in NYC.
The County apparently will go forward with this contract at significant cost to the county taxpayer, but without the taxpayers voice being heard, despite knowing there are at least 4 qualified candidates for the position of Chief Public Defender and therefore no necessity to throw our hard-earned dollars in the pocket of a NYC-based organization.
I believe the public should be informed of this occurrence as this committee just voted to spend 1.3 million dollars outside the county and is only charging 1.00 rent for county space.
I believe locals should  have the opportunity to contact their local legislator and voice their opinion before it’s too late, as the Legislature and its legal advisor, Steven Getman, are trying to quickly push the NDS agreement through under all of our noses and with a special meeting of the full legislature which was just announced moments ago to be tomorrow at 10:30 AM, although with no agenda attached so no one is sure if this on the agenda yet. In my mind, this Committee, and the full legislature of Schuyler County will have failed their public service/fiduciary duties if they allow this contract to move forward not only costing the County HALF A MILLION dollars per year, but also not garnering a fair market value for rental space to this independent contracted organization.
Thank you for your attention to this.
Jessica Saks
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