The Potluck

Minnesota’s top public defender faces no confidence vote from rank and file

By: - August 15, 2022 3:20 pm

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Minnesota’s State Public Defender Bill Ward faces a vote of no confidence from union public defenders, who say he has failed to advocate for the office and allowed morale to reach its lowest point in decades.

Minnesota’s roughly 470 public defenders and 200 support staff began receiving ballots in the mail on Monday from Teamsters Local 320, the union that represents them, asking if they have confidence in Ward’s leadership.

Along with the ballot, the leaders of the Teamsters Local 320 included a letter obtained by the Reformer that encourages members to vote no confidence, saying Minnesota Public Defense is in “crisis,” and that Ward “has allowed this crisis to fester by ignoring inadequate funding and debilitating caseloads.”

Brian Aldes, who co-signed the letter as secretary treasurer of the Teamsters Local 320, declined to comment. Ward did not immediately return a phone call and email seeking comment.

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

The anonymous vote is symbolic, but “will powerfully display the need for change,” according to the Teamsters’ letter to its members.

The move comes less than six months after the state’s public defenders and support staff voted to strike for the first time in history over chronically low wages and high caseloads.

A strike was avoided after the Board of Public Defense, which Ward oversees, reached a deal with workers that promised to reopen negotiations over wages if the Legislature allocated more money.

The Legislature did reach a tentative deal to “fully fund” public defense by increasing its budget by an additional $50 million per year — a 50% increase from the current annual budget of $106 million.

The funding 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 without a deal.

In the Teamsters’ letter, union leaders say 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.”

Ballots, which will be anonymous, must be submitted by Sept. 8.

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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.