Opinion Columns & Blogs

Why did Houston County Commission fire Nick White?

One of the most basic requirements if you want to have a viable representative democracy is that citizens must be well-informed about what their elected officials are doing and why they are doing it. Our representatives cannot represent us properly if they don’t share with us the reasons for the actions they take, especially when their actions could expose the people they represent to lawsuits or other adverse legal actions.

Those of us who live in Houston County have reason to be concerned that we are not being well-informed of what is going on within our county commission. Last week, the commission decided to fire the county’s nine-year veteran public defender Nick White, and they don’t seem to be interested in telling us why they did it.

The only explanation we’ve been given so far is that the public defender serves at the pleasure of the commission and they “decided to go in a different direction.” That means they don’t believe they have to have a reason for firing an employee, and it seems they don’t feel obliged to give an explanation for their actions in this case.

White believes he does have an explanation for his firing, and it’s a very troubling one for county residents. After the firing he shared with the media that his office had been handling far too many cases per attorney according to rules set by the American Bar Association. He said those guidelines state that an attorney should not be tasked with more than 150 cases per year, but Houston County public defenders handle more than 300.

That should be a concern for those of us who live and work and pay taxes in the county. Even if you don’t care if indigent people get an appropriate legal defense, the justice system does. The county could be sued for not providing adequate resources to the public in this area if those charges are true.

White says he voiced his concerns on this matter to the commission multiple times, urging them to hire more lawyers so that his office could adequately perform its duties and keep the county out of legal hot water. Instead of heeding his advice, they apparently decided to fire him.

You can guess what happened next. White is now suing Houston County for wrongful termination. That means your tax dollars are going to be employed towards settling this dispute in court, so I think we are owed a much more detailed explanation of what’s going on here and we should demand that we get one.

White’s complaints about case overloading in the Houston County public defender’s office are very specific and sound serious. The commission should address those charges and either explain why they are not valid or explain why they have not acted to address them.

As to their reasoning for firing our public defender, their “we decided to go in a different direction” explanation is not going to cut it. Imagine if you got called into your boss’s office and he or she gave you that explanation for a sudden termination. That’s no way to treat an employee, whether you’re a private business or a government agency.

The fact that White was fired after bringing what seems to be a very real problem in the public defender’s office to light makes this all the more concerning. I would hate to think that his firing is a case of “shooting the messenger,” but based on what’s been reported so far it seems like a possibility.

Of course we’ve really only heard one side of the story — Nick White has spoken at length to the media since his firing and members of the commission have stuck to their non-explanation of “going in a different direction” so far.

We need to know more. Our county representatives need to address the charges of excessive case workloads in the public defender’s office and explain to us the reason for exposing the county to a wrongful termination suit by firing a public defender whose only “offense” — that we know of at this point — was trying to hold their feet to the fire on adequately staffing his office.

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com.