State council questions Houston County public defender firing

State criticizes firing of Houston defender

A state agency now says Houston County commissioners mishandled their firing of Public Defender Nick White.

White was fired back in August of this year.

The Georgia Public Defender Council oversees public defender offices across the state. More than a decade ago, Houston County decided to opt-out of the statewide system and operate its own office.

The Council still oversees the opt-out counties to make sure they stay in compliance with their opt-out agreements. There are six opt-out counties in the state, and Houston’s agreement was made in 2005.

The Council’s executive director says the County violated that agreement when they fired White.

“The Council's vote determined that by not providing Mr. White with notice and a hearing prior to his termination, Houston County was not in compliance with the opt-out agreement,” said Bryan Tyson over the phone.

White has consistently maintained that the County fired him for speaking out against the high number of cases his office was dealing with every day. White also says he asked the County to hire another attorney, but that budget discussion led nowhere.

Tyson says the Council’s main concern is independence.

“It’ll be up to the Council whether the actions the County takes appropriately address the Council’s concerns. The Council’s primary concern is the independence of the public defender office from the budgetary functions be maintained,” Tyson explained.

He explained that there are two ways the County can go about resolving the issue. The first would be to give White notice and a hearing on his original firing. The second way, according to Tyson, is if the County provided policies that would ensure the public defender’s office’s independence moving forward.

Tyson says the decision is up to the County.

Nick White agrees with the Council’s findings.

“It is uncontested that I was dismissed at will, without cause. So, there's no doubt the County is in non-compliance and I am very happy with the Council's vote. I feel vindicated on what I've been saying since day one of my dismissal,” White said.

White has already repeatedly said he would consider suing the Board of Commissioners over his firing. He now says he will wait to see what the County decides to do before filing his suit.

But, he did maintain that he would file a lawsuit if he was not reinstated.

“I never got a negative performance evaluation, the County never raised with me any concern about the way I ran that office. There was no notice given to me of any complaints that the Board of Commissioners had about my performance in my job. There is only one issue that I had with this Board of Commissioners and that was my repeated request for an additional attorney for the office,” White claimed.   

White also explained he would be willing to return to work with the County and the Board of Commissioners. 

The Georgia Public Defender Council says it will now draft a letter to the County addressing the concerns. That letter is expected to be completed by the end of this week. The letter will give a specified time period for the County to rectify the issues.

If the issues are not fixed, the Council maintains the right to take control of the Public Defender’s Office away from the County.

Houston County Attorney Tom Hall says the County has not received any letter or information from the Council. He declined comment when asked about Nick White’s firing.

Chairman Tommy Stalnaker has not returned phone calls from 13 WMAZ asking for comment.

Other commissioners said they had no comment due to the potential for litigation. 


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