Aurora, CO

Aurora mayor loses cool with public defender commission chairman

David Heitz
Mayor Mike Coffman sits stone-faced after repeatedly banging his gavel Monday at the chairman of the Aurora Public Defenders Commission.Photo

A discussion about whether to privatize Aurora’s Public Defender’s Office led to a testy exchange Monday between Mayor Mike Coffman and Aurora Public Defender’s Commission Chairman Tom Tobiasson.

Tobiasson spoke during public comment about the public defender’s office being underfunded again this year. The funding for the office was instead put into an account for contracted out attorneys. Council member Alison Coombs noted this makes no sense because those lawyers are paid double what Aurora’s public defenders make. Lead Public Defender Elizabeth Cadiz said most staff attorney’s for Aurora make about $53 per hour. The state requires, meanwhile, that contracted out lawyers be paid $95 per hour, with the amount expected to be increased to $100 per hour next year.

The city attorney's office noted that benefits generally add about 30% to an employee's total salary.

Commission acts ‘as a political buffer’

Tobiasson said the commission acts “as a political buffer so the defenders can do their work independent of political influence.” The Aurora Public Defender’s Office is mired in politics inasmuch as the council’s conservative majority has shown an interest in privatizing the office. Council member Dustin Zvonek said the city could save as much as a million dollars by hiring a firm to contract Aurora’s Constitutionally required legal representation for the indigent.

Coombs said there is no study saying Aurora will save a million dollars if it privatizes the office. Money was set aside for a cost-benefit analysis to see if privatizing would be cheaper. But instead of that type of assessment the office conducted its own work study to justify adding three attorneys to the staff at a cost of more than $320,000.

As Tobiasson spoke Monday, the timer went off but Tobiasson kept talking. This led the mayor to begin pounding his gavel for several seconds before telling Tobiasson he was over time.

And then Tobiasson still kept talking, and the mayor pounded the gavel even harder and repeated, “You’re over time!”

Coombs tries to amend budget

Coombs made an amendment to the city budget to fully fund the three positions in the public defender’s office, but the motion failed. Only council members Coombs, Ruben Medina, Juan Marcano and Crystal Murillo supported it. Coombs later voted against the entire city budget.

Interim City Manager Jason Batchelor plans to issue a request for proposals soon for privatizing the public defender’s office. Zvonek claims most municipalities in Colorado contract out for public defenders.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at community newspapers in Southern California and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am proof that people can rebound from even severe mental illness with proper treatment. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living in the Mile High City. You can email me news releases and story ideas at

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