Staff attorneys at the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office have announced plans to form a union.
The union campaign comes amid ongoing questions over who will run the office. Some 60 frontline attorneys in the agency of about 73 attorneys are seeking to form a bargaining unit affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.
Describing their agency as “beset by turmoil surrounding the selection of the new public defender,” the agency’s attorneys who hope to unionize say in a statement that they are organizing “to prevent their office from being used as a pawn in local political conflicts”.
In the more than 200 days since the agency’s last chief, Tim Donaher, retired, the question of who could replace him has been a difficult one, leaving the agency so far without permanent leader for approximately one-third of the potential appointee’s two-year term.
From its inception, critics have called the selection process non-transparent and too much in the control of County Legislative Speaker Sabrina LaMar, a Democrat who won her job by choosing to caucus with Republicans.
LaMar referred questions to Nathan Van Loon, chairman of the committee responsible for selecting Donaher’s replacement.
Van Loon insists LaMar did not unduly influence the selection process.
“The only instruction she gave me was to find the best candidate,” he says.
Still, politics has significantly muddied the waters surrounding choosing a new head for the permanently understaffed agency, concedes Monroe County Deputy Public Defender Megan Gokey. But for herself and her colleagues who hope to unionize, “politics is not the main issue. We have been talking about a union since last year.
Workload is their main concern, says Gokey. The policy has prompted the office’s frontline lawyers to act on unionization, but it’s not the main reason staff are seeking to unionize.
While the number of clients each attorney represents at any given time fluctuates, it’s still too high, Gokey says. The fact that the agency is currently understaffed by about 20 lawyers partly explains the overload, but the understaffing is not the end of the story.
Public defenders represent accused criminals who cannot afford to hire an attorney. The number of such clients likely to require the office’s services at any given time is beyond the agency’s control. Still, says Gokey, the number of cases could be reduced without leaving customers without service.
Judges can ensure all indigent clients are represented by assigning cases that exceed the limit the public defender’s office might agree to cover to private attorneys, she says. Referring cases to these court-appointed lawyers is already a long-standing practice. No new measures would be necessary to implement it.
The problem of understaffing is not easy to solve and cannot be entirely left to office management or county administration, Gokey concedes. There are funds in the county budget to hire more attorneys, and the office is trying to recruit more attorneys. But public interest law is not the first choice for many lawyers or a career promoted by law schools, which like to advertise that their graduates win top prizes at prestigious firms.
For public defenders, Gokey says, bloated workloads mean “you never see your family and you don’t have time for anything other than work.” Such conditions lead to burnout and a high turnover rate for the office, compounding an endemic staff shortage. A union could negotiate workload limits and other working conditions that she and other potential union members believe would improve office efficiency.
At the same time, Gokey says, the political unrest that engulfed the county office for most of the year had a destabilizing effect. The same goes for choosing a new boss, especially if they are unfamiliar with the office.
A new politically appointed person might, for example, decide to clean house and place his own people in key positions. An outside candidate without institutional knowledge of the office and its practices could reorganize it in a way that disadvantages clients or worsens working conditions for lawyers, Gokey says. A union would make such procedures more difficult, if not impossible.
A controversial process
The controversy over choosing a new leader to lead the county agency dates back to January when LaMar exercised her prerogative as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly to organize a committee to choose a new public defender for the county.
Initially, the committee consisted of five members, two nominated by the county’s Democratic and Republican Legislature caucuses respectively, and three nominated by LaMar. As the process unfolded, LaMar twice extended the time in which the committee would make a choice and expanded the size of the committee. With each expansion, LaMar appointees made up the majority of committee members.
“The process was that there was no process,” says Joan Kohout.
A retired Monroe County Family Court judge and Democrat, Kohout was among the members initially appointed by the committee. Committee members rejected applications for no apparent reason and the body did little vetting of applicants, she said.
At one point, Kohout says as an example, Van Loon, a LaMar appointee, interrupted a candidate who was trying to run for the committee as a candidate, saying he didn’t need to hear. what the candidate had to say because he had already made up his mind.
The committee has repeatedly come under fire for its lack of transparency. In April, he took heat for failing to advance Jill Paperno, a thoughtful, longtime assistant public defender. Paperno subsequently resigned from the agency.
Selection committee chairman Van Loon, a family-practice attorney who runs his own firm and a former attorney for the Monroe County Democrats, disagrees with Kohout’s characterization.
Of Paperno’s elimination, he says, “I can’t talk to anyone else, but there was a decision (by the leadership of the Public Defender’s Office) to eliminate court coverage. municipal (of Rochester).”
The move, according to Van Loon, cut off valuable training ground for assistant public defenders, depriving the office of its much-needed “farm team”. As a member of the management team who made that call, Paperno would have been, in his view, a less than ideal choice.
“That’s just my opinion,” he warns. “I can’t tell what was on someone else’s mind.”
Past appointments to the position of public defender have been made without the assistance of any selection committee, Van Loon notes. LaMar created the committee to expand the process. To review the applicants, committee members, including Kohout, interviewed the applicants and reviewed references.
Extensions and time extensions were made to try and broaden the field in hopes of attracting what was initially a thin field of applicants. Van Loon says he rejected the candidate in Kohout’s example because the person said he didn’t really want the job.
At present, the choice appears to have been narrowed down to two candidates, Buffalo criminal defense attorney Robert Fogg and Julie Cianca, supervisor at the county public defender’s office. LaMar says she prefers Fogg to Cianca. But it’s unclear whether Fogg has enough votes from lawmakers to win the job.
The Democratic County Legislative Caucus and LaMar have been at odds since she and several other Democratic county lawmakers formed a dissident caucus that voted with the GOP to thwart moves by Democratic County Executive Adam Bello.
Other members of the splinter group, which called itself the Black and Asian Caucus, lost their seats in the last election, leaving LaMar as the only surviving member of the splinter Democratic group.
LaMar’s subsequent decision to caucus with Republicans won him the Speakership of the Legislative Assembly and denied his fellow Democrats control of the body. These developments did not endear him to the Democratic caucus in the Legislative Assembly.
Meanwhile, parties familiar with the legislature say several Republican lawmakers have said they prefer Cianca, casting doubt on Fogg’s chances.
A vote could take place as early as the next plenary session of the Legislative Assembly in September.
Ultimately, Van Loon says, for him, the choice came down to whether a candidate with institutional knowledge or a candidate with a fresh perspective would best serve clients and the office. He favors the latter.
Fogg, the external candidate Van Loon says is more educated, was the only candidate to submit a writing sample. Fogg is also the only candidate of the seven committee members, including Kohout, backed by a ranked voting system in which four members, including Van Loon, voted for Cianca.
In supporting Fogg, Van Loon claims, LaMar is simply going with the committee’s first pick.
On the fears expressed by Gokey about the loss of institutional memory, says Van Loon. “I respect their right to form a union, but sometimes people are just afraid of change.”
While trying not to focus on the political maelstrom, Gokey says she kept an eye on it.
“I didn’t ignore politics. I wrote to legislators; I spoke to legislators; I spoke to Sabrina LaMar,” she said. LaMar told her she would support a union, Gokey adds.
Several other Democrats who are not known to be on LaMar’s side have released statements of support for the union. They understand the Sense State. Samra Brouk, Harry Bronson and Jeremy Cooney; Rochester board member Stanley Martin; Monroe County Legislator Yversha Roman and Monroe County Democratic Chairman Zach King.
Whatever the outcome of the political maneuvers, the creation of a union of public defenders seems likely. The final word on the union goes to Bello, who in a statement expressed his support for the fledgling union organization.
“I support the right of public defense staff lawyers to unionize and defend their working conditions and their clients. My administration has an exceptional relationship with the employee unions in our county and welcomes the new union once it is established,” the statement from the county executive reads in part.
Does Astor is the lead writer for Rochester Beacon. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy, including the use of their real, full name.