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AOC chief pans county office plan

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Marion Warren, director of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, addresses Pasquotank commissioners about the county's plan to put the offices of the district attorney and public defender into smaller spaces and the same building. Warren asked commissioners not to go forward with the plan, calling it not only "bad public policy, but a disservice" citizens of Pasquotank and the region.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts urged Pasquotank County officials on Monday not to follow through with their proposal to put the offices of the district attorney and public defender into smaller spaces and in the same building.

In an afternoon work session, AOC Director Marion Warren asked commissioners to work with him to avoid what he described as “not only being bad public policy, but a disservice to the citizens of Pasquotank County and to the area as a whole."

Warren was referring to Pasquotank commissioners giving the green light in October to a plan reducing the space available for the offices of District Attorney Andrew Womble and Chief Public Defender Thomas Routten. Pasquotank offers space in its Public Safety Building for Womble's personnel and its courthouse for Routten's. The space isn’t used just by DA and Public Defender staff assigned to Pasquotank, however. Currently, Pasquotank is providing that space for five of the seven other counties in the 1st Judicial District. Dare County is the lone exception, providing space for Womble’s and Routten’s staffs in a satellite office.

Commissioners approved Bunch's plan only after three counties’ repeated refusal to pay Pasquotank for use of its facilities by DA and Public Defender staff assigned to cases originating in the three counties. Chowan, Currituck and Gates thus far have declined Pasquotank’s requests that they pay a total of about $60,000 a year to help Pasquotank defray its facility costs. Two counties — Camden and Perquimans — contribute to Pasquotank's annual facility costs.

Under Bunch's plan, Pasquotank would house both Womble’s and Routten's offices in the Public Safety Building, reducing their square footage only to what Pasquotank estimates it, Camden and Perquimans would need.

Though commissioners approved the plan, Womble and Routten immediately opposed it, warning it would harm their operations. Womble also noted that his personnel often work cases originating from several counties.

Warren said Monday he understands and sympathizes with Pasquotank's position, calling it a matter of "equity." However, he strongly encouraged against implementing the plan, primarily because he said it would force prosecutors and defense attorneys to occupy the same building.

Warren stressed the importance of keeping some distance between those agencies. Prosecutors and defense attorneys don't want the other side to see all the witnesses they're speaking with, and both crime victims and alleged criminals are best kept separate, he said.

Warren also suggested it's likely that public defenders will ask him to provide funding for alternative space. He said he often gets such requests and can't fund them all.

But Warren also offered Pasquotank some help. He said that, if Pasquotank keeps the public defender office together at one site, the AOC would provide funding to help renovate a new space. He said he had inspected the county's Edgewood complex, which also includes the Board of Elections and American Red Cross, and it had a good space available.

Commissioners were quick to note Warren was not offering to pay rent or other recurring expenses that come with Pasquotank offering space for neighboring, non-paying counties. Warren also declined to offer a specific dollar amount the AOC would pay to renovate a new space for the public defender's office.

Warren said he had no legal authority to force the three counties to contribute anything toward the cost of providing space for prosecutors and public defenders, noting the limits of state law and Pasquotank's lack of a written agreement requiring the counties to contribute. However, he said that, if Pasquotank takes him up on his offer, he'd be willing to ask the other counties to pay toward Pasquotank's space costs.

Commissioners took no formal action on Warren’s proposal, but Bunch said after Monday’s meeting that he will continue looking into it.

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