February 13, 2013

PitCo to add county attorney, district aims for a new judge

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Four of five Pitkin County Commissioners on Tuesday supported spending $144,000 in public funds to add a third lawyer to the county attorney department.

Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said hiring another in-house attorney would allow his department to continue to meet recent directives from the commissioners, including protecting the Thompson Divide area from additional gas drilling.

And another in-house attorney would help the county spend less on attorneys at outside law firms.

“As a rule … you can expect that outside counsel will cost at least twice as much as costs associated with in-house counsel,” Ely said.

Ely added that having outside attorneys is still valuable and necessary in regard to specialized areas of the law such as oil and gas regulation and Federal Aviation Administration issues.

Commissioner Michael Owsley said he supported the substance of Ely’s request, but couldn’t back it Tuesday because it was a supplemental budget request made outside of the county’s annual budgeting process.

County Manager Jon Peacock said Owsley raised a valid point, and that he would rather the request had come in through the normal process, but Peacock said that supplemental budget requests were sometimes valid for things that “may have matured” on a different timeline than the budget process.

He also said the county could afford the expense.

The $144,000 annual increase in the county attorney department’s expenses would be paid for by $120,000 from the county’s general fund and by $24,000 from the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams fund, which is fueled by sales tax revenue.

The county commissioners have also directed Ely to pursue a number of water-related legal initiatives designed to keep more water in local rivers.

Ely said he had thought about adding the request for a third attorney during the 2013 budget cycle, but decided against it at the time.

But he said the recent increase in potential drilling activity in the Thompson Divide area now required a “heightened level of participation” by the county.

“The ground has shifted and we have to respond to that,” Ely said.

Fifth judge for the Ninth

In a separate matter, the commissioners also agreed on Tuesday to support a bill in the state Legislature that would add a fifth judge and three staff members to the Ninth Judicial District, which has judges in Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Meeker.

The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill in January that would add a fifth judge to the district.

“We were fortunate to increase our number of district judges from three to four in July 2008,” Ninth Judicial District Judge James Boyd told the county commissioners in a recent letter. “Since then, our district filings have increased 68 percent. Most of the growth has occurred in civil, domestic relations and probate cases.”

He added that “of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts, we have the second lowest district court judge staffing level” and that “using the judicial department’s staffing model, we are about 73 percent of a full staffing level.”

Adding a district court judge is in part a county issue in Colorado as counties are responsible for finding judges and their staffs space to work in county court complexes.

Peacock told the Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday that the new judge would be handling civil cases, that he or she and two staff members would be working out of Garfield County’s facilities in Glenwood Springs, and that the addition would not change anything in the district attorney’s office.

All Pitkin County would have to do is find office space for a third staff member in the courthouse in Aspen — and there is room there, Peacock said.

The commissioners agreed to write a letter in support of the bill and to lobby for its passage at an upcoming Colorado Counties, Inc. meeting.

Peacock also said that since the new judge would be handling civil cases in Glenwood Springs, Judge Gail Nichols would be freed up to handle more civil cases in Aspen.

Editor’s note: This story was published in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News.

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