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MONDAY, DEC. 3 — Ingham County officials are expected to select a candidate to fill a new, chief public defender post this week but it won’t be without concerns from the judges that preside over the courtrooms.
Seven candidates with more than a combined century of legal experience will interview today for a yet-to-be established Public Defender’s Office. The job, implemented under recent standards from the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, is designed to provide better representation for impoverished defendants.
A quorum of county commissioners and four judges are expected to make a recommendation tonight, and whomever they select is almost certain to get the job. When eight commissioners make a recommendation, it’s highly unlikely the 14-member board tasked with solidifying the decision would ever run astray, officials said.
But three of the judges on the interview panel have voiced “disappointment” with the integrity of the process. One public defender candidate is a former county commissioner, recently elected to serve another term. Another is a 55th District Court magistrate who previously worked alongside one of the judges involved with the process.
Three judges on the panel — Joyce Draganchuk, Hugh Clarke and Richard Ball — also weren’t told they’d only serve an “advisory” role in the selection process until weeks before the scheduled interviews, according to a letter they sent to Commissioner Bryan Crenshaw. Questions also had to be submitted in advance, they contended.
“The interview process must be above reproach and must be conducted so that applicants feel they are being given a fair chance and not up against a stacked deck,” the letter reads, suggesting the interviews be kicked back into next year. “It’s our opinion that there’s no need to rush into the interview process given these concerns.”
The letter notes there is “no reason” not to reschedule the interviews into January. But Commissioner Deb Nolan, in a recent county democratic caucus meeting, spotted at least one. Commissioner-elect Carol Koenig might be again forced to resign from her post if she wants to continue to apply for the job, Nolan argued.
“If we put this off until next year, she would not be able to be interviewed,” Nolan said.
Koenig stepped down as commissioner in October to apply for the job, sidestepping a conflict with state law. Her name still appeared on the ballot in November and she was again elected to the board. Should she remain a candidate into next year, commissioners would be forced to appoint someone else to fill her spot.
Ethical concerns, in the meantime, have surfaced over how appropriate it is for fellow commissioners to hire a recent colleague — especially one who was chairing the commission until she quit. The county’s ethics policy advises against the practice. but the commissioners on the panel have continued to charge the process forward.
“This is the Board of Commissioners’ process,” Clarke explained. “This is something, if nothing else, that they have to deal with. It’s not a judicial process. We’re not involved. We raised the concern. It’s not personal toward anybody. It’s just more of a matter of saying this is out here and you need to handle this. It’s their process.”
Commissioner Mark Grebner previously emphasized that hiring Koenig would clash with the ethics policy and would be a “bad idea” but but also recognized the board “might just very well trample over the policy” anyway.
Koenig said she would abandon the county commission in favor of the new public defender role. If another candidate nabbed the job, though, she plans to return to the board in January. The judges’ recent letter suggests the process should be delayed to both develop their questions and further enhance the integrity of the process.
“We cannot say that we have much confidence in the process at this time,” according to the Nov. 20 letter.
A recent addition to the candidate list, Mark Blumer, was a former assistant prosecutor in Jackson County and serves as a magistrate in the 55th District Court. Although the judges will only advise commissioners on a recommendation, the letter found it “troubling” that he served alongside interview panel Judge Donald Allen.
Crenshaw has since said the board has allowed for the judges to submit questions and become more involved with the interview process. Clarke chalked it up to an overall lack of communication on the process. Judges, however, still won’t vote on the final recommendation. That’s specifically reserved for commissioners.
“I feel they have a valid role in the process,” Crenshaw added. “They might have a different feeling about it but we’ve altered our process to allow them to ask specific questions and to actively engage in the interview process.”
Democratic commissioners also weighed in at the recent caucus meeting. They largely agreed not to postpone the interview process but welcomed the judges’ continued involvement in next week’s selection. Commissioner Thomas Morgan, however, briefly suggested the judges should be booted from the interview panel altogether.
“The judges seem to be complaining that we’ve somehow reduced them to an advisory role,” Morgan added. “At the end of the day, we're hiring a county employee that answers to the county board. By the very nature of it, they're serving an advisory role in this process. That’s how this process works.”
The specific references to Koenig and Blumer in the letter point to an inherent bias, Morgan suggested. He questioned their ability to remain fair and impartial during the interview and recommended they be removed. None of the other members of the democratic caucus, however, rallied behind the last-minute suggestion.
“It sounds like they don’t have a vote,” Commissioner Derrell Slaughter added. “We have a mind of our own.”
Crenshaw, who chairs of the commission’s Law and Courts committee, said he didn’t originally want so many commissioners on the interview panel but acknowledged their recommendation will now likely become the person selected for the job. Besides Koenig and Blumer, four others have since applied for the new job.
Karen Phillips withdrew her application days before the interview. Cassandra Green, a partner at the law firm of Wieber Green; Assistant Ingham County Prosecutor Russel Church; criminal defense attorney Derrick Etheridge and Lansing Chief Deputy Attorney Joe Abood will each be interviewed for the post on Monday.
Commissioners Teri Banas, Randy Maiville, Robin Naeyaert and Randy Schafer will interview the candidates alongside Ball, Clarke, Allen, Draganchuk, Crenshaw, Morgan, Nolan and Slaughter. Commissioner Kara Hope, who previously expressed misgivings about the interview process, has since departed the interview panel.
“You can’t really hire (Koenig) anyway so she’s applying for no reason?” Hope said in a recording of a previous democratic caucus meeting. “So we’re doing this whole thing for no reason?”
Visit lansingcitypulse.com for continued coverage next week after a recommendation has been finalized.