County Counsel approved to take on social services cases

County Counsel Craig Settlemire was given approval to strip a private attorney contract position from the Plumas County Department of Social Services. He is adding that work and its related funding to his own department.

Settlemire told members of the Plumas County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, July 2, that he and his staff have experience dealing with the kinds of cases social services juvenile dependency programs require.

He also said that his newest deputy county counsel hire could spend at least 50 percent of her case time on related issues.

Quincy attorney Bill Abramson has held that position since June 2017, according to Settlemire. Abramson has held the contract with a salary of $50,400 that is reimbursed by state and federal funding.

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Settlemire said that with expectations that supervisors would approve his request, he sent a letter to Abramson telling him that his contract would expire June 30.

Settlemire said he sent the letter June 14, but wasn’t aware that Plumas County Department of Social Services Director Neal Caiazzo had sent a letter that same day offering the position to Abramson for another year.

Abramson was on vacation and not in the supervisors room to discuss Settlemire’s proposal.

Background

“As part of the development of the Plumas County Fiscal Year 2018-19 budget, the Plumas County Counsel’s Office presented a proposal to return to a three attorney level of staff that ended in early 2012 due to budget constraints,” Settlemire reminded supervisors.

Settlemire said that to relieve Abramson of conflict-of-interest cases, county counsel has been taking on more juvenile dependency cases for child protective services within social services. Abramson is also a public defender.

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Settlemire told supervisors that the conflicts-of-interest situations are now taking about a third of county counsel’s time. Settlemire foresaw that as Abramson takes on more public defender cases more conflicts would occur. Abramson was not available to say whether he anticipated an increase in his public defender duties.

Settlemire explained that including himself and his two deputy county counsels, they have about 33 years experience working with child protective services related cases.

Settlemire also came to supervisors armed with numbers showing county counsel’s involvement in CPS-related cases.

A time study showed that in 2011, 2012 and 2013, county counsel’s office averaged approximately 95 hours per year on dependency-related cases.

In 2014 and 2015, that increased to 154 hours, according to Settlemire’s figures. And that time increased during the next three years to an average of 220 hours per year. Settlemire said that was a 132 percent increase.

Settlemire said that he sent a memo to supervisors Aug. 21, 2018, describing how his office was steadily taking on more cases concerning juvenile dependency.

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Settlemire explained that his office could take over the $50,400 that was paid to Abramson for approximately 200 hours of work. “We proposed that if the county counsel’s office takes over handling all the representation in juvenile dependency cases, we can apply that $50,400 to partially fund the new deputy county counsel position,” Settlemire said.

He also said that since all attorneys in county counsel have experience with child dependency cases they could present a team approach. He said that although the funding formerly paid to Abramson would help supplement Settlemire’s most recent hire, all three attorneys would be available to work on cases.

Settlemire also pointed out the Government Code section that provides county counsel shall defend or “prosecute all civil actions and proceedings in which the county or any of its officers is concerned or in a party in his or her official capacity.”

Settlemire also indicated a Welfare and Institutions Code that provides that his office represent juvenile dependency cases. “Simultaneously, we will eliminate virtually all conflict cases,” Settlemire said.

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Settlemire went on to say that he discussed the situation with the former director of social services Elliott Smart two years ago.

Because this funding was included in the 2018-19 fiscal budget, Settlemire went ahead and hired the third deputy county counsel. That position was filled in late April.

Rather than addressing the situation that occurred when Settlemire cancelled Abramson’s contract and Caiazzo offered him a contract extension, Settlemire urged supervisors to approve his request.

Discussion

Caiazzo said that he appreciated Abramson’s 20-plus years working with social services — far longer than Settlemire specified as when the 2017 contract began.

Caiazzo said he hoped that the county counsel’s office would represent the clients as well as Abramson did.

Supervisor and Chairperson of the Board Michael Sanchez acknowledged that concern, although he went ahead and voted to allow the change to occur.

Supervisor Sherrie Thrall said she was aware of the general opinion by county employees and department heads that things seem to get stuck in the county counsel’s office. “Will this workload continue to account for the slowdown?” she asked.

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Thrall said she was also concerned about the communication between clients and social services representatives.

Supervisor Lori Simpson said she was aware that they had discussed the situation before. Her concern was that county counsel would still need to train someone to handle dependency cases.

Then Simpson asked what was the current caseload. Caiazzo said there are 25 active cases right now. “That’s a lot,” Simpson responded.

Plumas County Probation Chief Erin Metcalf said that her department has worked with Abramson for the last three years. She said that she experiences excellent communication with Abramson. He isn’t hesitant to “tell you what’s working well and what’s not working well,” she explained.

Settlemire assured supervisors that the new caseload would not take up more than half or less of an attorney’s time. He said they could also speed up processing submittals.

Settlemire explained that he had no fault with Abramson’s performance. The situation was “really being done from a logistical” point.

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Settlemire said that he was available to provide social services with after hours phone numbers so they could reach himself or an attorney in his department. He said he was providing enhanced availability and not hampering the situation.

Settlemire also said that his office could provide in-house training for social workers. He said they could discuss individual cases also.

Supervisors unanimously approved Settlemire’s request.

Caiazzo was contacted for additional information, but he was not available.

From the district attorney

District Attorney David Hollister has accused Settlemire of building government at the expense of the public during a previous meeting concerning county counsel’s effort to divest itself of small claims counseling.

Following the July 2 meeting Hollister said he tried to get Settlemire to wait with the agenda item until Abramson is in town. That way supervisors could also hear Abramson’s side.

As the district attorney, Hollister is well aware of what is needed in juvenile dependency cases.

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Hollister said, “Child dependency matters are among the most important cases any court handles.”

“They involve the safety of at-risk children and health of families in our community. Interactions between the DA’s office and Mr. Abramson concerning dependency (and related) cases have been nothing but positive,” Hollister said.

“Mr. Abramson has represented Plumas County’s Social Services Department in a professional, caring and diligent manner for years — bringing a necessary level of expertise to dependency cases,” Hollister added.

“It was not one of Plumas County’s prouder moments when the Board of Supervisors granted county counsel’s request and terminated Mr. Abramson’s contract without any objective background research, desire by social services for a change, or even providing Mr. Abramson the opportunity to appear at the board’s meeting and be heard,” Hollister said.

“I continue to be hopeful decisions such as the one so unfairly impacting Mr. Abramson and our community are made in the best interests of the public we serve rather than any one individual,” Hollister concluded.

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