Small claims advisory remains in county counsel’s department

Small claims advisory assistance is remaining as one of the functions of the Plumas County Counsel’s office.

Supervisor Jeff Engel made a motion supporting County Counsel Craig Settlemire’s request to eliminate those services, but no one seconded the motion and it died.

That decision came during the regular Board of Supervisors’ meeting June 11.

“I do have some reservations about doing it,” Supervisor Lori Simpson said, echoing a statement she made when Settlemire brought the proposal to supervisors. At the June 4 meeting a decision was tabled, but Simpson told Settlemire June 11 she didn’t mean for him to bring it back immediately. Toward the end of the discussion she said she thought Settlemire was forcing supervisors to make a decision before Settlemire had filled a vacancy in his office.

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Simpson said she met with Settlemire and he explained why he wanted to discontinue small claims advisory, but her doubts continued.

Simpson said she understands there are other avenues open to the public needing assistance in the small claims advisory process for the courts. Settlemire spelled out there are phone resources and information online to assist those who need help.

Simpson said the county has plans to reopen the law library, but the process can still be intimidating.

“I agree completely with what Lori is saying,” said Supervisor Sherrie Thrall. It’s “one more service we’re looking to take away from them,” she added about assisting the public.

Thrall also pointed out that county counsel just added a third attorney. “I’m not real comfortable with it; maybe it’s compassion for people who have to go through that.”

District Attorney David Hollister said, “This is a great starting point for a broader topic.”

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Hollister said that the small claims advisory services are very important. “They’re something we ought to be doing,” he said.

Hollister explained that the court system deals with people all the time that don’t understand the system and what they’re required to do.  “This is a tremendous service, something that a pamphlet or call can’t handle,” he said.

Hollister also pointed out that never in the history of the county counsel’s department has it had three full time attorneys and the justification for the third attorney position was that individual could handle the court calendar for cases involving children. Hollister said that has never been assumed.

What Hollister sees happening in the county counsel’s office is a case of growing government, while reducing services to people, he said.

Settlemire responded to Hollister’s comments by saying that his department has had three attorneys in the past.

As for the caseload concerning child-involved court cases, the existing contract runs through the fiscal year (ending June 30) and will transition over, he said.

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Settlemire said that all of the information was presented to the Board of Supervisors on previous occasions. “We are looking at providing additional services,” Settlemire said, and in a more timely fashion.

He said that he plans to have his staff do more outreach and at a lower cost than going outside the county. He also plans to offer better services to county offices that are required to send a lot of the legal materials through his department, and to the Board of Supervisors.

Offering the small claims services isn’t a primary function of the county counsel’s office, Settlemire explained. It was the state legislature that decided the courts could pay the county counsel’s office for small claims advisory services. But the funding gleaned from filing fees doesn’t begin to cover the costs, he said.

Settlemire sees the small claims advisory services as something that should be handled by the courts. But as he explained at the June 4 meeting, court representatives are unwilling to pay more for those services. They’re also not willing to provide them.

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At the June 4 meeting, Settlemire said he invited a court representative to attend the supervisors meeting, but the invitation was declined.

As examples, Settlemire said that the courts in Lassen and Trinity counties handle small claims advisory services.

Settlemire told Supervisors June 11 that if there was going to be any finger-pointing it should be at the legislature. Now reimbursement for small claims advisory is done on a county-by-county basis. “Isn’t it equally important here as in a larger metro area?”

It was suggested that the courts could do more for individuals by putting information on the web site.

“On their web site that hasn’t been updated for a long time?” Simpson shot back.

Had there been a second to Engel’s motion, the proposal required a four-fifths role call vote.