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November 23, 2014

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Joe Downtown: Clark County public defenders form union, face battle with administrators

Very quietly, lawyers in the Office of the Clark County Public Defender have formed a union, a move they feel is key to obtaining pay equity with county prosecutors.

Clark County administrators, however, are fighting the effort. Though the union formed late last year, the county hasn’t given it formal recognition and is battling the move in court. Public defenders and prosecutors are county employees.

Attorney JoNell Thomas, who works in the public defender’s office and is the new union’s president, said 127 of 128 defense attorneys, well beyond the required 50 percent, voted to unionize last fall. The county responded, she said, by sending them a letter saying they needed to join the prosecutors’ union.

Thomas said prosecutors and defense attorneys believe that would be tantamount to breaking state law. “We are not allowed to be in the same union under state statute, and it would violate rules of professional conduct,” she said.

She added that pay inequity is the main reason defense attorneys decided to form a union.

“If the county would have treated us the same as they treated the DAs the last seven years, we very well may have not started a union,” Thomas said.

Adam Levine, the attorney representing the public defenders union, said the new union is simply following a path carved by prosecutors who unionized in 2005. Clark County administrators fought that move but lost in 2006.

Clark County’s legal attempt to quash the public defenders union "is squandering taxpayer funds … refighting a battle it lost in 2006," Levine said.

Pay differences among attorneys took hold during the recession, when the prosecutors union got contractual increases in compensation, and wages and benefits fell for defense attorneys.

The issue came to a head in 2011 during a contentious meeting between then-District Attorney David Roger and county commissioners. Facing depleted coffers during the recession, the county wanted to cut Roger’s budget by 9 percent.

County staffers used the difference in salaries and benefits to make the case for cuts. They said if prosecutor compensation packages had been the same as public defenders during the previous three years, Roger would have saved $5.5 million. Compensation packages include salaries and benefits such as insurance, pension contributions and longevity pay.

The county said that between 2009 and 2011, prosecutors enjoyed 15 percent increases while public defenders saw compensation fall by 1.6 percent. In 2010, total compensation for prosecutors averaged $165,529 versus $153,983 for public defenders.

Salary ranges for the two groups, however, are a little closer.

Salaries for an associate attorney in the public defender’s office range from $65,020 to $100,755. A deputy district attorney’s pay range is $66,622 to $129,043.

The range for a senior attorney in the public defender’s office is $95,555 to $148,096. A chief deputy district attorney makes $94,307 to $151,715.

In January, the county filed a district court motion against the union effort, listing Clark County Defenders Union and the Local Government Employee-Management Relations Board as co-defendants. The next hearing is May 28.

The union's defense is simple: Prosecutors won the right to unionize; why can't defenders do the same?

Attorney Phil Kohn, the public defenders' chief, said he believes in pay equity.

"(Inequity) says to me that one side of the equation, prosecution, is more important than the other side, which is defense," he added. "I have done both prosecution and defense work and have great respect for what the district attorneys do, but the system should respond to both sides equally."

If public defenders win their fight, would the county entertain immediately increasing their pay and benefits?

County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak wouldn't offer a guess as to how the case would be decided. But having seen how much time the county staff puts into negotiating contracts — it deals with 11 bargaining units — he would prefer that prosecutors and public defenders belong to the same union.

During the recession, shorter union contracts became popular because they allowed the county to adapt contracts to its depleted revenues more quickly than with multiyear contracts.

As a result, however, contract negotiations these days are practically nonstop.

"It's getting to be too many bargaining units taking up so much staff time," Sisolak said.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown; he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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