A newly appointed state board will try to vacant Oregon’s public defense agency’s leader days after Chief Justice Martha Walters sacked all nine members and reinstated some.
Walters notified the nine-member Public Defense Services Commission that their terms end Tuesday and to reapply. Five members, including Chair Per Ramfjord, were reappointed.
Four reappointed members, including Ramfjord, supported removing Stephen Singer last week. Alton Harvey Jr., an addiction treatment mentor, voted against firing Singer.
Mark Hardin, a former commission member, told the Capital Chronicle he expects Walters fired the whole board after last week’s stalemate decision on terminating Singer. Hardin didn’t reapply for the commission because he wanted Singer to continue prioritizing child and parent representation in abuse and neglect cases.
Hardin believes she fired everyone because she was displeased with the decision. “That’s my best guess”
The committee overseeing the state’s problematic public defense system will meet in executive session Wednesday afternoon to “examine and evaluate the employment-related performance of any public body CEO, public officer, employee or staff member who does not request an open hearing.”
Oregon law prohibits open executive sessions. Reporters can attend but can’t reveal what’s said.
In executive sessions, boards and commissions can’t fire or censure employees. Thursday morning’s meeting is public.
The proposal to oust Oregon’s public defense director comes amid a crisis. A January report from the American Bar Association said Oregon has 1,300 fewer public defenders than needed. This deficit means some prisoners are kept in jail without attorneys and many more won’t get the attention needed to mount an adequate defense.
Harvey told the Capital Chronicle he’ll back Singer. Harvey said Singer may be gruff, but he’s heard from others who work with him that the organization is headed in the right way.
Besides, Harvey added, focusing on ousting Singer doesn’t address who would succeed him or the public defense system’s dilemma.
“We worry about not collecting money because of ruined connections, but with the money we have, we need to hire additional attorneys,” he said. “Fin. I don’t know how we can do that, but it should be one of the key goals.
Along with Ramfjord and Harvey, Walters reappointed Paul Solomon, executive director of prisoner reentry program Sponsors Inc., Portland attorney Lisa Ludwig, and former Republican state senator and corrections director Max Williams.
In an email, Solomon said he threatened to resign at the commission’s previous meeting if Singer wasn’t sacked or placed on leave. He reapplied to the commission because he had required a public defender and knows how important they are to the legal system.
“We have a constitutional commitment to ensure the poor have a proper legal defense,” he stated. “As a state, we failed to provide sufficient structure and financing for indigent defense.” We can make big improvements in the next legislative session. I hope to be involved.
Walters also appointed former state Rep. Peter Buckley, Corvallis attorney Jennifer Nash, Portland attorney Kristen Winemiller, and Urban League of Portland director Jennifer Parrish Taylor.
“I’m appointing you because of your mission and vision,” Walters wrote. “I’m also appointing you because I believe this body can build on previous decisions and agreements to make critical changes with an inclusive, courteous approach that unites us in our aim. Our work will start as quickly as the leadership transition. It’s too crucial to delay.”
The Capital Chronicle called and/or emailed new, returning, and past commission members, but few responded.
One of the new members, Nash, stated she didn’t apply but was asked to join. Nash was on a governor-appointed indigent defense task force and managed a public defense contract in Benton County.
She remarked, “I’ve been committed to public defense reform my whole career and am happy to serve.”
She said she doesn’t have enough information to decide if Singer should maintain his position, but she’ll “diligently seek information” to do so.
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