The County Commission has decided to award the 1989 public defender's contract to the law firm that currently has the contract rather than to a second firm whose bid was $20,000 less.

The firm of Aldrich, Nelson, Weight & Esplin, which received $175,000 for the contract this year, will receive $200,000 next year. The Jay Fitt law firm, in conjunction with the firm of Zabriskie & Patton, submitted a bid of $180,000.Despite the lower bid, commissioners turned down Fitt because his proposed contract was "a little bit lacking," said Deputy County Attorney Guy Burningham.

Commissioners said they were concerned about Fitt's plans to subcontract public defender work to other attorneys not formally part of the contract and because Fitt's office is in Salt Lake rather than Utah County.

Fitt said he planned to open a local office and reminded commissioners that only three members of the firm with the contract "are on the line for the contract."

In a letter dated Nov. 4, Fitt told the commission: "The county attorney has hired away four former members of the firm, and others have been hired to take their places. It cannot be said that it is necessary to have five lawyers committed to the contract, as it has not been the past practice."

Fitt said he had met requirements by providing the names of five qualified attorneys who would work with him, "even though not all are willing to become legally obligated to the county under the contract."

Fitt, who has bid unsuccessfully for the contract in the past, said commissioners shouldn't be surprised his was the only other firm submitting a bid.

"The rumor is that the awarding of the bid to the law firm that is presently performing the service is a foregone conclusion. This rumor comes from a relatively small community of lawyers who practice criminal defense law," he said in his letter. "The rumor is indeed supported by the lack of bids."

Commissioner Brent Morris denied that the current firm has a lock on the contract.

"I don't think that's the case with the three commissioners here," he said. "I'd like to see someone else get it, frankly."

Commissioners expressed concern over how much disruption in public defender cases would be caused by opting for a new firm. They'll likely find out next year because Aldrich, Nelson, Weight & Esplin, which has had the contract for five years, is not expected to bid for it again.

In justifying the $25,000 hike over last year's contract, Michael Esplin told commissioners last week his firm had experienced a large caseload increase, especially in the number of juvenile and sexual-abuse cases.

"They don't fit into a mold . . . or a system of expectations," he said of sex-abuse cases. Esplin said the cases are more difficult and require additional involvement and time, especially in recommending and preparing for sentencing.