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Space sought for public defender’s office

Hamilton Co. will be 1 of 10 counties to have a full-time public defender

WEBSTER CITY — An official with the state public defender’s office asked the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday for assistance in providing office space for a public defender that will soon be based in Webster City.

Kurt Swaim, the first assistant state public defender, said that the Legislature, in its last session, recognized that it had become increasingly difficult to hire private attorneys to serve as public defenders in rural parts of the state.

“What the legislators did was appropriate money, or actually reallocated funds so that we could hire 10 public defenders to live in rural Iowa who would take some of the cases in places where we had trouble getting private attorneys to handle indigent defense cases,” he said.

Hamilton County was identified as one of the rural counties slated to have one of the public defenders, Swaim added. Public defenders have been hired in nine of the 10 counties, with Hamilton County being the final county to receive a public defender.

Swaim said that while the legislature had appropriated funding to hire the attorneys, they had not set aside funding for office space.

“We have gone around to the counties and they have been very generous in terms of helping us find (office space) for the public defenders,” he said. “These folks will be full-time state employees with full benefits who will live in the community.”

Usually, the counties have provided free or low-cost space in the courthouse or an annex building to allow the public defender to meet in private with clients,” Swaim said.

“That’s what we would request from Hamilton County,” he said.

Chairman Rick Young said it was likely that there would be a space available in an annex building and the board would contact Swaim before the end of the week with details and the cost of the rental.

Swaim said his office’s policy has been to locate an office space before hiring the public

defender.

Charles Kenville, of Webster City, who is an assistant state public defender in the Mason City office, was also in attendance at the meeting and offered a few comments to the board.

“I wanted to impress upon you the benefits to the county,” he said. “If you have a full-time public defender in the county, it will in the long run save the county money especially in terms of the impact on the sheriff and the jail.”

He said without a public defender in the county, the responsiveness and level of service would not be the same.

“It would be a benefit to the county to have someone who is in the county and able to respond quickly to things and move cases along more quickly and efficiently,” he told the board.

COVID update

Supervisor Jerry Kloberdanz offered a COVID-19 update.

Pam Harklau, clinical manager for the health department, provided Kloberdanz with a written update, which he reported at the meeting.

“Eighty percent of the positive COVID-19 cases reported are the omicron variant,” he said. “Transmission remains high and is rapidly rising across the state.”

He said the health department expected cases in Iowa to reach their peak in February.

“Other parts of the country have already seen that peak and are starting to downturn,” he said.

Hamilton County Public Health will continue to test area residents with symptoms for COVID-19 on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, Kloberdanz said, adding that the tests are the PCR variety that are sent to the state hygienic lab for testing with results in 48 to 72 hours.

Testing is also available at the pharmacies and physicians’ offices and all residents can sign up for free at-home COVID-19 tests at covidtest.gov.

“Rapid test supplies continue to be very limited. People are trying to get these tests, and they aren’t readily available,” he said.

Kloberdanz said the health department continues to encourage washing hands frequently, wearing a mask and staying at home if people feel ill.

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