The Potluck

Minnesota’s public defenders vote no confidence in agency head

By: - September 8, 2022 3:31 pm

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The union representing Minnesota’s rank-and-file public defenders announced on Thursday an overwhelming vote of no confidence in the state’s Chief Public Defender Bill Ward, who oversees roughly 470 public defenders and 200 support staff.

The symbolic vote comes just days before the Board of Public Defense is scheduled to vote on the reappointment of Ward to a new four-year term.

Public defenders say Ward has failed to advocate for more funding for the office, even as attorneys and staff struggle to handle high caseloads and earn wages that lag far behind those of prosecutors.

“We’re hemorrhaging attorneys. We’re hemorrhaging support staff. We can’t get applicants for positions,” said Veronica Surges, who’s worked as a public defender for the past 10 years. “Morale is at an all-time low.”

The public defenders voted 167-13 that they did not have confidence in Ward’s leadership, while support staff voted 97-8.

Ward did not respond to a request for comment. Board of Public Defense Chair Molly Jannetta issued a statement saying Ward has been “a highly effective leader and advocate for our clients.”

“The board looks forward to continuing to work with Mr. Ward to further the board’s mission of providing quality criminal defense services to indigent defendants in the state of Minnesota,” Jannetta wrote in a statement.

However, another Board member said he was concerned by the vote.

“I am deeply troubled by this vote of no confidence. These issues are certainly concerning and worthy of further exploration,” Elizer Darris, a member of the Board, wrote in a statement.

Teamsters Local 320, the union that represents public defenders and support staff, sent ballots to its members last month along with a letter encouraging them to vote no confidence in Ward.

The letter, obtained by the Reformer, said Ward “lacks respect for employees” and “operates under a culture of fear and intimidation.” The letter said Ward yells at employees during meetings and has implied that public defense employees are “lazy, weak and selfish.”

Also at issue is Ward’s decision to order attorneys and staff back to the office on Sept. 6 over the objections of the union. Many attorneys and staff, who had been working remotely since the pandemic began, want to continue with flexible work arrangements.

“There’s not a difference in productivity … and COVID has not gone away,” said Surges, who noted that court hearings continue to be held remotely in some counties.

Teamsters Local 320 Secretary-Treasurer Brian Aldes also pointed to Ward’s support for Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Kassius Benson, who is under investigation for tax evasion and is alleged to have violated his public oath by representing private clients.

The Teamsters Local 320 and the Board of Public Defense have been at odds over wages and working conditions for months.

In March, lawyers and support staff voted to strike for the first time in state history. A strike was avoided after the Board of Public Defense reached a deal with workers that promised to reopen negotiations over wages if the Legislature allocated more money.

The Legislature did reach a tentative, bipartisan deal to increase the public defense budget by an additional $50 million per year — a 50% increase from the current annual budget of $106 million.

The deal died, however, when negotiations between House Democrats and Senate Republicans over a massive public safety bill broke down at the end of the legislative session.

In the Teamsters’ letter to its members encouraging members to vote no confidence, union leaders said Ward had never requested “anything resembling” an adequate public defense budget, until Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, asked him in a legislative hearing to present a proposal for full funding.

During January’s committee hearing, Ward acknowledged he had never asked for full funding because it seemed to be a pipe dream.

“Our budget was cut in 2008, ‘09 and ‘10. I laid off 17% of my staff … it took us six years just to get back to the deficit we were faced with,” Ward said. “No, we’ve never asked for an additional $50 million but we’ve certainly been very, very upfront about the national standards.”

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.