Kenneth Taniguchi, Fresno County's public defender for the past six years, will retire early next year, according to a letter he sent to Fresno County officials.
Taniguchi, 62, dated his letter Sept. 18, one day before lawyers in his office sent a letter to Fresno County supervisors and administrators complaining about a shortage of staff, heavy workloads and a lack of promotional opportunities even though a county promotional ban was lifted a year ago.
Fresno County Board of Supervisors Chairman Henry R. Perea said Taniguchi's final day is Feb. 2. Perea said he expects county officials to name an interim public defender and then conduct a search for Taniguchi's replacement. He said internal candidates can apply for the position.
Perea said Taniguchi has been discussing retirement for some time.
Lawyers upset with Taniguchi's leadership probably won't see much change in the operations since supervisors have kept the public defender's funding low and that won't change any time soon, Perea said.
Union leaders are convinced that rumblings within their department before their letter last week played a role in Taniguchi's decision to retire. The union letter said that public defenders were handling three and four times larger caseloads than those recommended by the American Bar Association.
The tipping point, according to public defenders, was the recent firing of one of their lawyers who complained she was overworked and unable to properly carry out her constitutional duty for clients.
"Our people are very frustrated right now," said Scott Baly, president of the Professional Association of County Employees, which represents 50 public defenders. But, he said, the letter was not an attack on Taniguchi; rather, "it was a letter trying to make a better office."
Taniguchi didn't comment Tuesday, but he said last week that he thought the county's financial situation was beginning to improve and that it would lead to improvements for his staff.
He said funding equity between the public defenders and district attorney's office has been a problem "as far back as I can remember" and that the clients his office represents "are not very sympathetic to the Board of Supervisors."
He said he has been able to regain some positions last year and this year, but not enough to compensate for the dramatic cuts to his staffing.
"I can understand the frustration of people wanting to move faster," Taniguchi said.
Taniguchi has been a defense lawyer for 31 years. Prior to becoming public defender, he was a senior defense attorney in the Public Defender's Office. His annual salary is $144,743.
It's not clear if Taniguchi will seek another job.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, email@example.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.