Tuolumne County will soon be seeking a new chief public defender for the first time in more than 15 years.

Public Defender Robert Price has informed the county that he plans to retire in July after more than 25 years of service, including his current role since 2003. He could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

In preparation of the upcoming need to recruit a replacement, the county Board of Supervisors will consider updating the job description and increasing the salary range at a public meeting on Tuesday.

County Human Resources staff has recommended boosting the position’s maximum base salary from $132,041 to $166,092 per year to “increase the likelihood of a successful recruitment.”

Public documents cited a compensation study completed in 2015 by an outside consultant firm that suggested the current salary range was too low compared to other public defenders in the region.

The study recommended increasing the position’s salary to the proposed maximum of $166,092 in order for the county to be more competitive at attracting talent.

Despite the proposed pay increase, the county would potentially save an estimated $1,500 in the next fiscal year that begins on July 1 because the new person likely wouldn’t receive the same benefits in addition to their salary.

Price receives the maximum base pay for the position of $132,041, as well as an additional 13 percent of that because of how long he’s worked for the county. The county also contributes an amount equal to 8 percent of his salary toward his retirement.

The total pay that Price received in 2017 was $161,762, which included a lump-sum payment of $13,890, while his retirement and health plan contributions from the county were $38,680 for that year, according to the latest available data from the California State Controller’s Office.

The proposed changes are part of the board’s consent calendar on Tuesday, which is typically voted on at the start of the meeting and used mostly for procedural matters. However, a supervisor can ask to set aside a specific item on the calendar for further discussion.

Public defenders are assigned by the court to provide legal representation for people who otherwise couldn’t afford an attorney.

Price oversees a staff that includes three deputy public defenders, who all have graduated from law school and passed the state bar exam like any other practicing attorney.

One of the office’s deputy public defenders is Hallie Gorman, wife of elected County Supervisor Ryan Campbell.

The current operating budget for the county Public Defender’s Office is slightly less than $1 million per year, nearly the same as 2003 when the annual budget was about $845,000.

A short biography for Price on the Public Defender’s Office web page stated that he has been a member of the California State Bar since 1989 and attended law school at Western State University in Irvine.

The website stated that Price is also a U.S. Army veteran who previously worked for a private law firm in San Diego and later as a deputy district attorney in Stanislaus County.

Price took the helm of the county Public Defender’s Office when Gerry Osmer quit after one year due to unhappiness over the budget and relationship with the county administrative office at the time, according to a Union Democrat article from January 2003.

Donald Segerstrom, presiding judge of Tuolumne County Superior Court, has worked in the same legal community as Price for decades — albeit often on opposing sides as the county’s former district attorney from 2001 to 2011.

Segerstrom said he’s always worked cooperatively and had good communication with Price, who he described as a steady and stable leader for the public defender’s office.

Though he’s never worked directly in a public defender’s office, Segerstrom said he’s aware of the difficult nature of the work due to the volume of cases they handle each year and not having a say in the selection of clients.

“You may represent some people that either you don’t get along with or don’t agree with, and yet you have an ethical obligation to represent those people to your best ability as a lawyer,” Segerstrom said. “Bob’s office has always strived to achieve that goal.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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