Williamston residents paying twice for indigent defense funding – officials say


During their meeting Monday, Williamston Town Council declined to approve second reading an ordinance allocating funds for Indigent Defense.
Council reluctantly approved first reading on the ordinance at their February meeting, and again Mayor Mack Durham and Councilman Rockey Burgess expressed their views that the requirement amounts to double taxation on municipal residents to provide the service.
The measure failed to pass when Council voted 2-3 with the mayor and Councilman Tony Haygood voting in favor and Councimen Rockey Burgess, David Harvell and Chris Alexander opposed.
Town Attorney Lee Cole explained that by not approving the ordinance, or the funding it would provide, puts the town at risk for liability for not providing the service.
Cole explained that the constitutional requirement for legal representation in a trial situation requires municipal courts to provide legal representation.
County taxes and fines added to traffic tickets already provide some funding to the state for indigent defense, Cole said. However municipalities have been mandated by the state to provide additional funding to provide the service in their municipal court.
Cole said the town has three options: pay the fund, provide legal counsel or not have a municipal court.
Cole said providing the service would cost the town more than the state is requesting.
He said, the problem with not having a municipal court is that the town’s ordinances would be unenforceable.
Cole said that state and county money and some from a traffic ticket provide for indigent defense but it is underfunded by the state. That according to Cole, “shifts the burden to the municipality. We are paying for it again.”
Cole said a judge cannot assign an attorney and the town is open to significant liability for not having an attorney present if a defendant requests one and is unable to pay for his own.
Councilman Burgess urged residents to call their state legislators and complain about the unfunded mandate and others being pushed back to the towns.
“We are being double taxed all the time,” he said. “We don’t get anywhere near that back from the county.”
Cole then advised council to add legal advice to an executive session scheduled for later in the meeting. In a 4-1 vote, with Burgess opposed, the item was added to the agenda.
In other business, Council approved second reading on an ordinance on land use regulations. Changes remove inconsistent language.
Second reading on a lease of the armory property was tabled.
Mayor Durham said there needed to be some adjustments made to the lease and the leasee had not signed the agreement.
First reading was held on a 2018 election ordinance.The election for Council Wards One and Two will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Books will open for candidates on August 7.
Council then went into executive session to discuss a contract matter related to providing services to Pelzer.
Upon returning to open session, council reconsidered the vote on the indigent defense funding issue and reluctantly approved it 5-0.
The Town will pay $4547 from the general fund to the Tenth Circuit Public Defender to provide the service.