Legislature to vote on allowing ADAs to live outside county

What is most important quality when hiring an attorney for the District Attorney’s Office – their qualifications or where they live?

Today, the Chautauqua County Legislature will most likely debate this question because of a proposed resolution that would allow up to four assistant district attorneys to reside in adjoining counties. Earlier this month, the resolution was debated during the legislature Public Safety Committee meeting.

According to the minutes of the meeting, Patrick Swanson, county district attorney, said it is becoming more difficult to find qualified attorneys who currently live or will move from larger cities, where they can receive higher pay, to Chautauqua County.

“I don’t want to find myself in a situation where I’ve got to hire somebody that just can’t do the job only because they live here. It puts me in a bad position as the elected (district attorney). It puts our public safety at risk. That’s a bad reason to hire someone, just because they’re a body that lives here,” he said. “My priority is having competent and experienced attorneys in my office, whether they live here or 30 miles away.”

If the proposal passes the legislature, it needs to be passed by the state Legislature. The counties of Westchester, Yates, Madison, Montgomery, Putnam, Fulton, Essex, Wyoming, Sullivan and Oswego have all received permission from the state to hire assistant district attorneys who reside in adjoining counties. The chief assistant district attorney, however, would have to live in the county in case they had to fill in the for the district attorney.

“The counties that have done this have found, similar to what I’m finding is when you have an opening in your office, you aren’t getting many applications,” Swanson said to the Public Safety Committee. “What I will tell you is that none of these counties that have it, have placed a restriction on the number they can put. Quite frankly, I don’t see us ever having a need to hire more than four from outside of this county given our numbers in our office as they are. It is something that I think at this point with us adding an attorney next year, it’s something that in the future I suspect is going to pose a bigger problem finding qualified applicants that are willing to move out of the city and into your county that adjoins that county with the larger metropolitan area.”

Terry Niebel, R-Sheridan, and Lisa Vanstrom, R-Jamestown, both asked Swanson how he advertises for a vacant assistant district attorney position, of which the District Attorney’s Office currently has 10. Swanson said he publishes a notice in the Erie County Bar Association, Jamestown Bar Association and the Northern Chautauqua Bar Association. He said he doesn’t use local newspapers because usually attorneys find the position if it’s listed in the local bar association.

“It’s the best and most cost effective way to search for an attorney,” Swanson said.

Niebel, who submitted a letter to the editor on the proposal that was published today by the OBSERVER, questioned why Swanson doesn’t use the county Human Resources Department.

“Human resources does do a few things to get positions out and make positions known to the public. For example, the postings go to every county office building throughout the county. Actually, they go to every municipal building in the county,” Niebel said. “I’m just thinking that if you did that, human resources would advertise in the Observer, they’d advertise in The Post-Journal, on the internet, the intranet that goes throughout the county. Of course you guys would pay for this, but I think they also use job sites such as Indeed, Monster. I don’t know about ZipRecruiter, but they do things like that. That’s another avenue that you could pursue as far as your recruitment.”

Swanson answered by stating, “I agree, but at the end of the day, it’s going to pull from the same pool of applicants because we’re limited because we have the requirements of having a law degree and a New York state law license.”

Paul Whitford, D-Jamestown, asked if there was a high turnover rate in the office, which Swanson acknowledged there is because of low pay and a large case load, which has led to the District Attorney’s Office to becoming a “revolving training center.”

“We can’t meet the private pay and we lose people to do that,” he said. “We do have some very committed attorneys that want to make this a career and those are the people that I really appreciate having on my staff, but there are others that realize that at some point, they have great litigation experience and, with the market as it is right now in Chautauqua County, they can make a lot more money if they leave. It’s tough to compete with private pay. That’s not unique to hear. That’s a common thing across the state.”

Swanson said in the past when he has had openings he has lost qualified people who live outside the county.

“I’ve had openings. I’ve offered the job to two different people that didn’t live in our county that were unwilling to move here. Fortunately I was able to fill those positions with other people, but when you’re turning away your first choice for a position, you hate doing that because they simply live 30 miles further up the road,” he said. “They want to live in Buffalo. That’s where young, professional law students want to be and it’s unfortunate because they were two very good candidates. They would have been entry-level attorneys. Finding an experienced attorney that’s willing to up and move when they own a house is a whole different thing. So, this is a problem that is being experienced in more places than here.”

Niebel said the proposal would set a bad precedent and motioned to table the resolution. The Public Safety Committee tabled the resolution with Niebel, Vanstrom and Daniel Pavlock, R-Sinclairville, passing the motion while Whitford and Robert Bankoski, D-Dunkirk, voted against it.

However, because the Administrative Services Committee unanimously carried the motion, the proposal will come before the full legislature today.