Editorial: Commission accepts ‘totally unacceptable’ to keep controversial Director of Public Defense Services

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Members of the commission overseeing Oregon’s public defense system widely acknowledge that Executive Director Stephen Singer’s treatment of lawmakers, Oregon’s chief justice and even commission members themselves was at times surprisingly rude.

“Totally unacceptable” is how attorney Steven Wax called Singer’s conduct toward Judge Martha Walters, as reported by Noelle Crombie of The Oregonian/OregonLive. To Wednesday committee meeting, Walters and the commission’s chairman described several instances in which Singer yelled at and berated the chief justice. Fellow commissioner Thomas Christ used more colorful language to describe some of the emails Singer had sent to others — including those he needed to further his agency’s goals. “Obviously they are intemperate, disrespectful, condescending, discourteous, totally unprofessional and unnecessarily combative,” Christ said.

And yet, both men, along with commissioners Mark Hardin and Alton Harvey, Jr., rejected other members’ efforts to fire Singer. Instead, some pointed to pressures from management of the state’s beleaguered public defender system or blamed uncooperative employees for causing Singer’s persistent rude behavior. They argued that Singer, who started working at Oregon Public Defense Services in December 2021, hasn’t had enough time to prove himself. And some have suggested that Singer, a man in his 50s with decades of experience and earning a salary of $205,428, might act more professionally if he received just a little coaching.

It’s hard to imagine bosses more lenient for such disqualifying behavior. It’s even harder to see how Oregon’s understaffed public defender system can emerge from crisis under the leadership of a man who generates far more of it.

A 26-page memo from commission chairman Per Ramfjord lays out a series of allegations against Singer, including lies, retaliation and unprofessional rants aimed at Ramfjord, the chief justice and others. Ramfjord noted the disruption Singer caused early on at the agency, when he sought to reassign a well-regarded legislative fiscal officer from Oregon’s Public Defense Services because he was also assigned to the Department of Justice – a conflict of interest in Singer’s opinion. . While Ramfjord described extinguishing that fire, others arose, as Singer regularly engaged in combative exchanges with lawmakers who control agency funding and others in the system’s orbit. of public defence. Ramfjord noted that Singer continued with his confrontational approach, despite Ramfjord’s warning, ultimately leading the commission chairman and longtime defense attorney to lose faith in Singer’s judgment, truthfulness, and ability. to lead the organization. Singer’s texts and emails, included in the memo, are full of accusatory language and dismissive comments.

Walters herself attended the meeting, describing Singer’s verbal attacks and hostility over the months as she pushed him to more urgently address the shortage of public defenders in Oregon. The crisis has left more than 900 low-income defendants without a public defender and many are waiting to be released from prison. But it’s not just that Singer picked “insane” fights with several key players or failed to build the relationships the agency needs to succeed, noted the longtime public defender and member of the Lisa Ludwig commission. Nor has he demonstrated the leadership skills or the strategy to pull the agency out of its grave dysfunction. And such allegations of bullying should be taken seriously, she said, underscoring her concerns. “I would rate his communication as high volume, low consistency and flippant precision,” said Ludwig, who joined Ramfjord, Paul Solomon and Max Williams in supporting his shot.

But with one of nine commissioners unable to attend and four voices opposed to Singer’s removal, the motion failed. So is a motion to place Singer on paid administrative leave pending a human resources investigation into staff complaints against him. A largely symbolic motion by Wax to publicly rebuke Singer, demand an apology, and bar Singer from initiating communications with lawmakers without a commissioner or other designated person also failed.

To be sure, Singer has supporters, especially among public defenders who now receive greater compensation thanks in part to more state money. In February, the Legislature awarded the agency $12.8 million amid the growing unrepresented defendant crisis and just weeks after an embarrassing report, commissioned by the legislature, showed how Oregon is failing to meet its constitutional obligations. Lawmakers are also working with Governor Kate Brown’s office and the Judiciary Department in a “three-pronged task force” identify short and long term solutions. As Solomon noted in his remarks supporting Singer’s firing, the urgency of reforming Oregon’s public defense system is widely recognized. The commission should not jeopardize this goal by continuing to support a CEO who appears to have questionable credibility, poor judgment and profound management flaws. Singer, who was fired in 2020 from the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center in a seemingly “acrimonious” departure, as The Acadiana Advocate reportedjust isn’t the right solution here either.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Wax rightly suggested that the committee suspend a termination vote until the full committee is present. Although the proposal was not considered at the time, it is the best way to make such a momentous decision. The commission should take the next few weeks to consider the message it sends by continuing to employ someone so deeply compromised, work out a possible interim plan and put the matter to a vote again, with all nine commissioners present. If someone’s behavior is “totally unacceptable”, the commission should not accept it.

-The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board

Oregon Editorials

Editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board, which operates independently of the newsroom. Members of the editorial board are Therese Bottomly, Laura Gunderson, Helen Jung and John Maher.

Board members meet regularly to determine our institutional position on current issues. We publish editorials when we believe our unique perspective can provide clarity and influence an upcoming decision of great public interest. Editorials are opinion pieces and therefore different from news articles.

If you have any questions about the opinion section, email Opinion Editor Helen Jung or call 503-294-7621.
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