Oregon's public defense head fired by re-worked commission
A state commission has fired the executive director of the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services, one week after it decided against firing him.
The vote on Thursday, Aug. 18, by the reconstituted Public Defense Services Commission was 6-2 to fire Stephen Singer, who had been in the job eight months.
The difference was that in the intervening week, Chief Justice Martha Walters dismissed all nine members of the commission, which is a separate agency within the judicial branch, which Walters leads. She did reappoint five members the next day on Aug. 16 — she said she did so for all who reapplied — but replaced four other members.
Walters told the commission in brief remarks Aug. 17 she had not intended all the public commotion. But she was a critic of Singer.
"This is what happens in Third World tin-pot dictatorships," Singer said about his ouster.
The reconstituted commission met over two days before ousting Singer, who critics said was abrasive with other officials. His advocates said he brought much-needed energy to an agency that has been beset with problems.
Its biggest has been the lack of legal representation for some indigent criminal defendants, particularly in Multnomah and Washington counties, in violation of a guarantee under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1963 that they are entitled to legal counsel in state and federal courts.
The Legislature did release $100 million withheld from the agency budget, approving what amounts to a $13 million patch to the system. But legislative leaders and Gov. Kate Brown say more work needs to be done.
The agency is part of the judicial branch, but its budget is not under the control of the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, who leads the state trial and appellate courts.
Walters released this letter after she announced the new commission on Aug. 16:
"I am appointing each of you because of what you bring to this mission and vision. 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 new members
Within a couple of hours of their removal on Tuesday, Aug. 16, Walters named four new members. They are in alphabetical order:
• Peter Buckley, former state representative from Ashland (2005-17) and former House co-chairman of the Legislature's joint budget panel (2009-17). He is a project manager at Southern Oregon Success, a nonprofit consortium serving children, youths and families in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties. It is overseen by the Southern Oregon Education Service District.
• Jennifer Nash, a lawyer in Corvallis who specializes in criminal and family law, but does not provide public defense. She has been on a governor's task force on the issue, administered the public defense services contract in Benton County, and sat on the pay parity committee of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
• Jennifer Parrish Taylor, director of advocacy and public policy for the Urban League of Portland. She also is a public member of the state Board on Public Safety Standards and Training.
• Kristen Winemiller, a lawyer in Portland who led the Oregon State Bar task force on indigent defense in 2000 and is a life member of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
The reappointed members are:
• Per Ramfjord, chair, a trial lawyer at the Portland firm of Stoel Rives, Oregon's largest private firm.
• Paul Solomon, vice chair, and the executive director of Sponsors Inc., a prisoner re-entry program based in Eugene.
• Alton Harvey Jr., an addiction services mentor for Volunteers of America, based in Portland, and one of four commission members who opposed the firing of Singer.
• Lisa Ludwig, a lawyer with the Portland firm of Ludwig Runstein.
• Max Williams, outgoing president of the Oregon Community Foundation, a lawyer, and former state representative (1999-2004) and former director of the Oregon Department of Corrections (2004-11).
All commission terms are four years. The chair and vice chair will serve for two years.
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