The husband of Tuolumne County’s chief legal advisor was selected by the Board of Supervisors to become the next head of the Public Defender’s Office.
The board voted 4-0 behind closed doors on Friday to offer the job of public defender to Scott Gross, a Sonora-based attorney who’s married to County Counsel Sarah Carrillo. Deputy Counsel Christopher Schmidt was appointed to help negotiate the employment contract.
County Supervisor Ryan Campbell did not attend the meeting and has recused himself from matters related to the position because his wife, Hallie Gorman, is currently the county’s senior-most deputy public defender in the office.
Gross previously served as the public defender for Calaveras County and has worked since March 2017 as part of a group of attorneys paid by Tuolumne County to defend people who can’t be represented by the Public Defender’s Office due to a conflict of interest.
Deputy County Counsel Carlyn Drivdahl said that Gross becoming the public defender despite his relationship to Carrillo won’t present a conflict of interest in itself, because the county has a protocol in place that keeps her “walled off” from any matters related to his employment.
A conflict of interest is when a public employee or elected official has personal financial interests that overlap with the work they do or decisions they make on behalf of a public entity, which is forbidden under California law.
The protocol was developed with the help of the San Francisco law firm Hanson Bridgett, which specializes in these types of issues, when Gross became part of the group that represents people who have a conflict of interest with the Public Defender’s Office.
Drivdahl cited parts of the protocol that stated Carrillo removed herself from the chain of command for any matters related to Gross’ current contract as a conflict attorney and does not have any access to records or information related to it.
“We will review the protocol, and revise as necessary, as Mr. Gross transitions to his new position,” Drivdahl said.
One person who wasn’t eligible for the position was Gorman because she’s married to Campbell, according to Drivdahl, even if he recused himself from the decision.
The entire board is prohibited from directly entering a contract with Gorman because it could financially benefit one its own members, Drivdahl said.
Drivdahl provided a copy of a letter she sent to the California Fair Political Practices Commission in February asking to clarify whether the board would be allowed to appoint Gorman, who had expressed an interest in applying for the position.
The commission has yet to provide a response, but Drivdahl said she anticipates receiving one by the end of the month.
The letter also stated the board is interested in creating an assistant public defender position and whether she would be eligible to apply for that, as well as whether Campbell can participate in labor negotiations that involve his wife’s bargaining unit.
County Administrator Tracie Riggs said she couldn’t recall exactly how many applied, but the number of qualified candidates was whittled down to eight. The county accepted applications for the job from April 26 through May 13.
Part of the county’s standard hiring process for all high-ranking positions is for the qualified candidates to be interviewed by two sets of panels. In this case, all eight were interviewed by panels that consisted of attorneys, Riggs, and other county officials.
The panels then recommended four candidates who were invited to be interviewed by county supervisors, but only two followed through with the interviews that were conducted on Friday.
Riggs said she couldn’t reveal the identity of the other candidate because it’s a personnel matter and could affect the person’s current employment. However, Riggs would say that Gross had twice the amount of experience than the other candidate and stood out to the board because of “his passion for serving the client base that he serves.”
Gross verbally accepted the offer from the county on Friday, Riggs said. She hopes to have a formal contract for the board to consider approving on June 18 and for Gross to start his new job on July 1.
The maximum base salary for the position is $166,092 per year, which is $34,051 more per year than retiring county Public Defender Robert Price was being paid after 25 years of service to the county.
The board voted 4-0 in April — minus Campbell, who recused himself — to approve raising the base salary for the public defender position after Price announced his retirement.
A 2015 study recommended increasing the position’s annual base salary from the current maximum of $132,041 to $166,092 to be more competitive at attracting talent because it was closer to what other places are paying for the same job.
Carrillo’s annual base salary is $165,265, the current maximum for her position, which would put the couple’s combined yearly earnings from the county at more than $330,000 if Gross also received the maximum salary.
The new salary for the public defender boosted it above that of District Attorney Laura Krieg, despite the board also increasing her annual from $154,890 to $161,195 in March.
On Tuesday, the board is scheduled to revisit Krieg’s salary and consider increasing it again to a maximum of about $178,000.
Gross declined to do an interview on Monday and sent a press release with details about his background and experience. He got his law degree from the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and was admitted to the California State Bar in 1997.
He’s worked in public defender’s offices in Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties since 2002 and considers the highlight of his professional career to be attending the Death Penalty College through Santa Clara University, a prestigious program with 62 defense attorneys in the United States admitted each year.
The press release concluded with him stating: “I wish to thank the Board of Supervisors for their appointment and look forward to the challenges of the Tuolumne County Public Defender’s Office.”
Price, the outgoing public defender, responded via email to a request for comment stating that he believes Gross “is an outstanding attorney and will be a fine asset to our office” and doesn’t see a potential conflict of interest. He declined to comment on the situation with Gorman.
County supervisors Karl Rodefer, John Gray, and Anaiah Kirk all responded to emails asking why they voted to hire Gross by stating that he was the best due to his experience and citing the protocols in place to make sure there isn’t a conflict of interest.
Kirk noted that he was initially concerned about how hiring Gross would appear to the general public, but felt comfortable selecting him after being advised that there wouldn’t be a conflict of interest and his wife’s office doesn’t directly oversee him.
“It's about the best candidate serving the community, not about what may look the best,” Kirk said. “Although it may not look like the right hire, it was the right thing to do and not hold his wife’s position against him.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.