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Publication Date: Wednesday, September 30, 2009


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Local public defender’s office closes

By Cindy Iutzi/Gate City Staff Writer
Published: Wednesday, September 30, 2009 11:21 AM CDT
Defendants in South Lee County may have the right to an attorney, and if they can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed for them.

However, they will have to travel to Fort Madison if they want to meet with their attorney in the public defender’s office. The Keokuk public defenders office was shut down on Aug. 5, effective today, by State Public Defender Tomas Rodriguez.

In the process, the position of 24-year employee Diane Turner, the office secretary, was transferred to Davenport.

Lee County Assistant Public Defender Jon Hensen and Public Defender Kendra Abfalter were still in shock about the situation Thursday while they packed their office in boxes.

Hensen recounted a conversation he had with Rodriguez at Lee County Public Defender Dave Sallen’s office.

“The day before Aug. 5, I said, ‘My only question is, are you going to close the Keokuk office?’” Hensen said. “We had prepared, gotten letters of support.”

After pleasantries had been exchanged, Rodriguez told Hensen, “There has been no decision made as of this time,” Hensen recalled. “The next day, he calls between 2 and 3 p.m. to say the office was closing. The decision was made 60 days before. It seemed to have been less than straight forward.”

When the subject of consolidating the public defender’s offices was broached in January, Hensen remembers discussing the possibility of the Fort Madison office closing “for obvious reasons of traffic count.”

Keokuk has more criminal cases than Fort Madison, Hensen said.

“When he called I said, ‘I thought you put your workers where the work is,’” Hensen said. “He (Rodriguez) said, ‘You’ll be driving to Keokuk. You’ll go to Fort Madison first and then come back to the (South Lee County) courthouse.’”

Without a Keokuk office or phones dedicated to the Keokuk public defenders, Hensen and Abfalter will be at the Lee County Courthouse Thursday, but could be working out of their cars, they said.

To date, they don’t have work cell phones although they have requested them from Sallen.

“A lot of our clients don’t have a driver’s license or vehicles,” Hensen said. “To try and provide some quality of service, we have to come to them so they don’t have to come to us.”

Abfalter said that in addition to being without a means of telephone communication with their clients, she and Hensen have not been approved to take their fax machine and printer to Fort Madison so that some means of direct communication is available.

“Instead they are selling them on ebay,” she said.

Hensen and Abfalter believe the state is attempting to move from the county level to regionalization of court services. Lee County has two courthouses and two county seats, a thorn in some sides.

“I think what’s most disturbing to me is how the state has treated Jon’s disability and Diane’s situation,” Abfalter said. “To make a pregnant woman drive 45 minutes (one way) to fire her over the phone and then drive back nearly hysterical is unbelievable. She is a 24-year employee with a high risk pregnancy and now she’s losing her health insurance.”

“It’s mind boggling how they treated her,” Hensen said.

Turner was asked to drive to the Fort Madison public defender’s office for a conference call the day she lost her job. When she arrived, she was informed during the conference call that her job no longer would exist in Keokuk. Abfalter and Hensen wonder why the call couldn’t have been made to Keokuk under the circumstances.

“And Jon with his disabilities,” Abfalter said, referring to the spinal cord injury Hensen sustained in a motorcycle accident that has left him with serious disabilities. “They provide him no assistance. They expect him to be on the road for hours every day and still get the job done.

“They’ve made our jobs even more difficult and I can’t see any justification for it. That’s what’s frustrating to us, and without citizen complaint, they’re going to continue to marginalize us.

“We will have to leave the house at 8 to 8:15 a.m., drive to Fort Madison and then be back to Keokuk for a 9 a.m. court case. It’s nonsensical. We lose an hour each morning that we have to meet with our clients.”

Lee County Public Defender Dave Sallen said this morning that the decision to consolidate the county offices was made in Des Moines in the state public defender’s office.

“Ours was the only county office that had a branch office,” Sallen said. “It became necessary to cut back. Like in other governmental offices, there has been streamlining.”

Sallen said the case loads in Keokuk and Fort Madison are nearly the same, with “possibly a few more in the South Lee County Courthouse.”

The Fort Madison public defender’s office was made the headquarters for a four-county area in 2002, Sallen said. The counties served includes Lee, Henry, Des Moines and Louisa. Burlington also has a public defender’s office which sends an attorney out to the counties to represent clients.

Accommodations have been and are being made for Hensen, Sallen said. After the accident, his job was held open for a year, he was given time off for therapy and equipment he needed.

Disability Services is investigating his drive and will recommend whether any improvements will have to be made, Sallen said.

“Jon has come a long way,” Sallen said. “He’s driving out to the Lee County Jail already.”

As for equipment being furnished for Hensen and Abfalter, Sallen said cell phones have been ordered and are in the mail. Lap top computers also have been requested.

Telephone service to the public defender’s office in Fort Madison will be inconsistent for 24 hours starting this morning because the phone system is being changed to accommodate Hensen and Abfalter’s office, Sallen said.

He added that the two Keokuk public defenders will meet with their clients in the courthouse in an office on the third floor if their clients are not able to travel to Fort Madison.

Lee County Attorney Michael Short, who works alongside Hensen and Abfalter in the courtroom, albeit on the other side of criminal cases, is concerned about the logistical problems that will be created by moving the public defender’s office.

He believes the people who have a difficult time making their way the South Lee County Courthouse in Keokuk will have an even greater challenge making it all the way to the public defender’s office in Fort Madison.

“Primarily poor, unemployed people are represented by the public defender’s office,” Short said. “A segment of that population have lost their drivers’ licenses. And that is a category of people who didn’t get where they’re at by being persistent and responsible.”

Also, Short is disturbed about the impact of the move on Hensen.

“This makes it particularly hard on Jon,” he said. “He’s made some recent long trips to Fort Madison and he needed to have someone drive for him.”

Short said that the office closure is not saving rent funds because an office in Fort Madison has been rented for Hensen and Abfalter and is being remodeled.

The move may allow some budget savings by laying off Turner, but understands the secretary in Fort Madison is retiring in a month anyway, Short said.

“With your file cabinet 45 minutes away from the courtroom, where do you meet your clientele?” he said. “You look at this and it’s hard to see it as a cost saving measure or a measure to serve the public. They are going to end up paying cell phone costs, mileage and reasonable accommodations for Jon. This is their cost savings measure. And I don’t think they’re treating their people right.”

Sallen said having Turner drive to Fort Madison the day she was notified about her job being transferred to Davenport was not intended as a hardship. The office was considered to be a half-way point and her union representative was traveling from Burlington.

He added that the secretary in Fort Madison is not retiring anytime soon.

“She has many years left,” Sallen said. “My understanding is that Diane can apply within two years to be reinstated in any job she qualifies for. I’m going to miss Diane. She has been a good and friendly employee.”

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