State Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, speaks with Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters at the opening session of the Oregon House on Feb. 1, 2022. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
A newly appointed state board is expected to try again to remove the head of Oregon’s public defense agency days after Chief Justice Martha Walters fired all nine members and reinstated some of them.
Walters told every member of the nine-person Public Defense Services Commission that their terms would end Tuesday, and to reapply if they wanted to continue serving. She reappointed five of the current members, including Chair Per Ramfjord.
Four of the reappointed members, including Ramfjord, supported firing Stephen Singer, director of the state Office of Public Defense Services during a meeting last week. The last, addiction recovery mentor Alton Harvey Jr., was among the four members of the former board who voted against firing Singer.
Mark Hardin, an attorney and now-former commission member, told the Capital Chronicle he assumes last week’s deadlocked vote on firing Singer caused Walters to fire the entire commission and appoint new members. Hardin, who did not reapply for the commission, said he wanted Singer to remain in large part because of Singer’s commitment to prioritize representation for children and parents in child abuse and neglect cases.
“I think it was because she was unhappy with that decision that she fired everyone,” Hardin said. “I don’t know that for a fact, but that’s just my best guess.”
The commission, which oversees the state’s troubled public defense system, is now scheduled to meet in an executive session Wednesday afternoon to “review and evaluate the employment-related performance of the chief executive officer of any public body, a public officer, employee or staff member who does not request an open hearing.”
Under Oregon law, executive sessions are closed to the public. Reporters can attend but cannot disclose what was discussed.
Boards and commissions also can’t take any official action, such as voting to fire or reprimand an employee, during executive session. The commission has a public meeting scheduled for Thursday morning.
The renewed effort to fire the man in charge of Oregon’s public defense system comes in the midst of an ongoing crisis. Oregon has about 1,300 fewer public defenders than needed to adequately represent criminal defendants, according to a January report from the American Bar Association. That shortage means some defendants are stuck in jail without attorneys assigned to their cases, and many more won’t get the attention needed to mount an adequate defense against criminal charges.
Harvey told the Capital Chronicle he still intends to support Singer. The man might be gruff and rough around the edges, Harvey said, but he’s heard from others who work with Singer that the agency is moving in the right direction under Singer’s leadership.
Besides, Harvey said, the focus on firing Singer doesn’t address the question of who would replace him or the underlying crisis in the public defense system.
“We’re worried about not getting money because of relationships being damaged, but with the money that’s available, we need to be trying to figure out a way to hire more attorneys,” he said. “That’s it. I don’t know how we can do that, but I think that’s one of the main focuses, if not the focus, or it should be anyway.”
Along with Ramfjord and Harvey, Walters reappointed Paul Solomon, executive director of prisoner reentry program Sponsors Inc.; Portland attorney Lisa Ludwig and Max Williams, a former Republican state legislator and former director of the state Corrections Department.
In an email, Solomon said he had made his feelings about Singer clear at the commission’s last meeting, when he threatened to resign if Singer wasn’t fired or at least placed on leave. He said he reapplied to the commission for the same reason he originally applied: He previously needed a public defender, and he knows from firsthand experience how critical they are for the justice system.
“We have a constitutional obligation to ensure people without means have the benefit of adequate legal defense,” he said. “As a state, we have failed in our mission to provide the proper structure and funding for indigent defense. We have a unique opportunity to make significant changes in the upcoming legislative session. I look forward to being a part of that process.”
Walters also appointed four new members: former state Rep. Peter Buckley, Corvallis attorney Jennifer Nash, Portland attorney Kristen Winemiller and Jennifer Parrish Taylor, director of advocacy and public policy for the Urban League of Portland.
“I am appointing each of you because of what you bring to this mission and vision,” Walters wrote. “I also am appointing you because I believe that, collectively, this body can build on the decisions and commitments already made and move forward to achieve the necessary changes with an inclusive and respectful approach that unites us in our common goal. This change in leadership occurred quickly, and our work will commence as quickly. These issues are too important to delay.”
The Capital Chronicle called and/or emailed new, returning and former members of the commission, though only a few responded Tuesday afternoon.
Nash, one of the new members, said in an email that she didn’t apply but was asked if she would be willing to join the commission. Nash has previously served on a governor-appointed task force on indigent defense and administered a public defense contract in Benton County.
“I have been committed to public defense reform for my entire professional career and I am grateful for the opportunity to serve,” she said.
She said she hasn’t yet received enough information to have an informed opinion about whether Singer should keep his job, but she will be “diligently gathering information” to be ready to make that decision.
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