Merced supervisors unanimously approve Elgin as public defender

07/29/2014 8:11 PM

07/29/2014 8:22 PM

A group of attorneys from the Merced County Public Defender’s Office huddled around a computer screen Tuesday morning to watch the confirmation of their new boss at a Board of Supervisors meeting.

The staff of 10 erupted in applause and a few cheered when longtime prosecutor David Elgin, 52, received the unanimous nod of approval from county supervisors.

“We had a live feed in the office when it happened and people were very happy,” said Deputy Public Defender Caleb Hegland. “I think he’s going to do a great job, and I’m excited to have him running the office. He’ll make us a better team.”

Elgin, who works as a supervising deputy district attorney, was selected by Merced County Executive Officer Jim Brown after an “extensive” recruitment process. Elgin spent 14 years in the district attorney’s office, but previously worked as a private criminal defense attorney and an officer for the California Highway Patrol.

“It was determined that David Elgin would be the best fit as the next public defender,” Brown said shortly before the Board of Supervisors voted to confirm his appointment. District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey was absent Tuesday.

It’s unclear when Elgin will begin his new position. County officials are working to ensure his transition doesn’t impact pending legal cases and identifying any potential conflicts of interest since Elgin previously worked as a prosecutor. The goal is to make sure no clients are affected by the transition.

Those issues should be resolved within a few weeks, Elgin said, and he’s eager to begin the next chapter of his career.

“I’m feeling good, and I’m excited about going forward and getting to work,” Elgin said after the meeting Tuesday. “I want to assess what we’re doing well in the public defender’s office and what we can do better.”

Chief Deputy Public Defender Vincent Andrade has been serving as interim public defender since October, a job he was officially appointed to in February. Though he unsuccessfully competed for the permanent position, Andrade said Tuesday there are “no hard feelings” and he’s supportive of Elgin.

“I’m pleased that the transition is over and we have someone like Dave as leader of this department,” Andrade said. “I think he is a good selection for the job. There are no hard feelings because we are all here to serve the people of Merced County in different capacities.”

The public defender’s office has experienced its share of turmoil the last 12 months: the highly publicized resignation of a previous public defender, an employee arrested on suspicion of releasing a gang member and a former attorney who filed a claim after an internal report was made public.

Eloise Kelsey Souders, a former “extra help” deputy public defender and daughter of Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, filed a claim against Merced County seeking $200,000 and a formal apology for damage to her reputation after county officials released an internal investigation of the public defender’s office.

Souders claims that making the report public was negligent and caused damage to her professional and personal reputation. Merced County has 45 days to act on Souders’ claim. If the county rejects it, Souders has the option to file a lawsuit within six months.

Elgin acknowledged there will be a few challenges waiting for him at the public defender’s office.

“The transition of a new public defender is going to take some time for the office to get used to,” Elgin said. “It’s a matter of getting them to come together. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s a process.”

Other looming challenges include the county’s anticipated growth and an increasing level of cases because of Assembly Bill 109, the state’s prison realignment law. Some attorneys in the public defender’s office are already handling 300 felony cases a year, officials said, despite limited resources.

Deputy Public Defender Chris Loethen said he’s confident Elgin can overcome any challenges. Loethen, who is vice president of the union that represents public defenders, worked next to Elgin for two years when he served as union president.

“I worked with him closely on union issues, and I have a lot of respect for him,” Loethen said. “He’s always demonstrated incredibly strong ethics and an outstanding legal mind. I think he’s an excellent choice to lead our office, and I hope he’s here for the rest of his career.”

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