Yolo County Public Defender Barry Melton recalls his younger days as a band member of Country Joe and the Fish, known for its anti-war anthem "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag." Melton is taking early retirement to save other jobs.

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Yolo County loses best-known employee among exodus of early retirees

Published: Tuesday, May. 19, 2009 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

Barry Melton knows his days as a young rock icon, when he took the stage at Woodstock with a tousle of blond curls, are long past.

When he played the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love in 2007, the sun in Golden Gate Park burned his scalp through his silver strands. "My hair is so thin on top," he laughed Monday.

But at 61, Melton – the Yolo County public defender who became famous as "The Fish" in the Vietnam-era band Country Joe and the Fish – leaves at the top of his game as a lawyer.

He said he decided to retire next month partly to save jobs in his office as Yolo County struggles with a historic budget crisis.

"It's either that," Melton said, "or put some young attorney in the unemployment line."

Melton is one of 93 county employees who have accepted retirement incentives as part of the county's efforts to reduce a $24 million budget gap in the 2009-10 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Officials say the retirement incentives, which county supervisors are expected to approve today, will save $3.1 million and reduce the need for layoffs.

Other savings measures, including increased voluntary furloughs, also are expected to save jobs. Every employee in Melton's office, for instance, has agreed to take 208 hours of unpaid furlough next year, equal to a 10 percent pay cut.

"We're a family," Melton said. "Everybody in my office is sacrificing."

Assistant County Administrator Pat Leary called Melton's departure "bittersweet."

Losing the county's best-known employee, with his wealth of experience in the courts, is not ideal, she said.

Across departments – from the District Attorney's Office to county social services to the Assessor's Office – there will be an exodus of veteran employees whose expertise will be hard to replace, she said.

"You don't want to see the brain drain created with all that experience walking out the door," Leary said.

But employees who accept the early retirement package may allow younger workers to keep their jobs.

The incentive packages include two years of service credits, which increase pension payments as if the employee had worked for two more years, Leary said.

Because of the cost to the county of those packages, each retirement will save about three-quarters of another position, she said.

County officials hope the savings will reduce the number of layoffs, previously projected at 111, by at least half, she said.

In Melton's office, where two dozen lawyers work to protect the rights of indigent defendants, one or two young lawyers might be spared from layoffs by Melton's departure.

He will step down as the county's public defender but remain on staff for another year, working part time to help his office transition. County supervisors will select his replacement.

"This was the right thing to do, but I'm not a martyr," Melton said. He said he expects to have enough income to live comfortably.

Melton said he may continue to do death penalty work and to try cases in the area.

Meanwhile, he remains an active musician, playing local charity concerts and clubs and festivals in Europe during his summer vacations.

A blazing improvisational guitarist, he said he's looking forward to being able to play more gigs with his bandmates, including former members of the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Growing up in New York and California, Melton said his parents encouraged him to become a musician who championed social causes. In his early 20s, he was part of the Bay Area music scene, playing the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969 with Country Joe McDonald.

The Berkeley-based group's anti-war ditty "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" was a rallying cry for a generation.

Melton said he "rebelled" in his 30s by becoming a lawyer. He passed the bar without graduating from college or law school and worked in other public defender's offices before coming to Yolo County.

Today, album artwork, rock photos and a portrait of his "lawyer hero" Mahatma Gandhi adorn the walls of his Woodland office.

Melton has always taken pride in his two sides – music and law. He said the socially conscious music of the 1960s and the work of public defenders who represent indigent defendants have a lot in common.

"Working for poor people to make sure they get dealt with equally," Melton said. "Those are '60s values, man."

Call The Bee's Hudson Sangree, (916) 321-1191.

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