SUNBURY - A lack of manpower in the county public defenders' office due to health problems has caused concern among court officials, but the head of the department is confident his reduced staff will continue to provide the best possible legal counsel to defendants.

Public defender Michael Romance has been on leave since Jan. 7 for health reasons, while Attorney Michael Suders plans to be off for at least two weeks for a medical problem that resurfaced last week. Their absences leave the office with only Chief Public Defender Edward Greco and Attorney Paige Rosini to cover criminal cases in the Court of Common in Pleas in Sunbury and four magisterial district judge offices.

Conflicts counsel Michael Seward, Special Conflicts Counsel John Broda and Attorney James Best, an independent conflicts counsel, provide legal representation to clients through the public defender's office when conflicts occur within the office. Seward and Broda also handle juvenile and Children and Youth Services cases.

Greco, who has a private law practice in Kulpmont, is employed part time with the county, while Rosini, Romance and Suders are full time. Seward and Broda are full-time county employees, while Best, who also has a law practice in Sunbury, provides part-time service to the county and is certified to handle death penalty cases, as are some of the public defenders.

Northumberland County Deputy Court Administrator Kevin O'Hearn said the lack of manpower has not caused an abundance of scheduling changes thus far, but he is fearful it could lead to more cases being continued in the future, particularly at the magisterial level.

Some judges also have expressed concern about the availability of public defenders.

Greco said being without Romance and Suders has made scheduling more difficult, but believes his office will be able to persevere by making the best of the situation.

"We are still handling all the assigned cases," he said. "Everyone is pitching in and we are doing our best to provide proper legal defense to defendants."

Greco said the county commissioners and court officials have been very supportive of his staff's dilemma and continue to work together so legal services and cases are not hindered.

Greco and Rosini have been very busy during the past week covering cases in the county and magisterial courts. Legal proceedings are held throughout the week at the courthouse. Preliminary hearings at the offices of Magisterial District Judges John Gembic III of Shamokin and Benjamin Apfelbaum of Sunbury are held Tuesday mornings and afternoons, respectively. Hearings at the offices of Senior Magisterial District Judge Richard Cashman of Milton and Magisterial District Judge Hugh Jones of Mount Carmel are conducted Wednesday mornings and afternoons, respectively.

Defendants can be appointed a public defender if they prove financial hardship in their applications. O'Hearn said public defenders represent more than 50 percent of defendants involved in criminal cases and allow the county to save money by not having to appoint private attorneys.