Public Defender Departs Abruptly, Will See County in Court
by Martha Sadler
Bitterly citing untenable working conditions, Santa Barbara County Public Defender James Egar abruptly resigned last Wednesday, announcing he will take a job as Monterey County’s public defender. In a damning letter to Santa Barbara County Chief Executive Officer Michael Brown, Egar complained that Brown’s “hostility, threats, intimidation, and retaliation toward me … created this hostile working environment,” which made it “impossible for me to continue as the county public defender.” Egar cleaned out his desk and turned in his keys on Monday. On Tuesday, his lawyer notified the Santa Barbara County Counsel’s office that Egar intends to sue.
Despite a highly formal and markedly humorless public demeanor, Egar was popular among his staff and inspired strong loyalty in his six years of service to the county. He is credited with raising morale after the departure of predecessor Glen Mowrer, who chose to end his 24 years as public defender in 2000, following a grand jury report excoriating Mowrer’s high-handed management style. “Mowrer didn’t enjoy our support,” said one deputy public defender who asked to remain anonymous, “but Mr. Egar certainly does.” Egar advocated fiercely not only for the indigent criminal defendants who are the public defender’s clientele, but also for his perennially overworked staff. He created a stir, for instance, when he refused to take certain juvenile court cases in North County, saying that he did not have enough staff.
This year, with a flourish of put-upon humility, Egar arrived, hat in hand, at the county budget hearings to request more social workers for his office, reporting that the two current workers went out on stress leave at the same time. The social workers are charged with keeping drug-addicted, alcoholic, and mentally ill defendants out of the overcrowded county jail by finding suitable placements for them, sometimes by personally driving them to treatment centers after they are released from jail in the wee morning hours. A number of deputy public defenders also stepped up to the podium at this year’s budget hearings to protest their inclusion in the county’s new merit pay system, arguing that their work does not benefit the county financially and therefore would not be fairly judged. To Egar’s agitations for additional resources, Brown has since countered that the county provided his office, during the last year, with additional staff — including three new deputy public defenders — a $1 million office remodel, and a pay raise for Egar to $172,500.
Upon stepping down last week, Egar steadfastly refused to speak to reporters. However, in his July 12 letter of resignation — which he also sent to the county Board of Supervisors — he wrote that Brown harassed him to prevent him from “advocating for adequate resources” to do his job. In the 11 bulleted “factors which I believe have led to this situation,” Egar complained that Brown not only thwarted Egar from seeking manageable caseloads for his staff, but was also guilty of “spitting in my face” and “screaming and us[ing] repeated profanities to me and my staff.” Though the letter cited no specific dates, the last two points match rumored descriptions of an incident six months ago in which Brown reportedly spewed pieces of the sandwich he was eating into Egar’s face during a display of rage which so discomfited Brown’s own staff that they attempted to excuse themselves.
The language in Egar’s letter smacks of grounds for a lawsuit, especially the term “hostile work environment,” the repeated reference to “retaliatory threats,” and mention of the fact that Egar’s clients are “disproportionately members of the minority community.” Brown put him in constant fear of his job, Egar wrote, threatening to “slaughter” his reputation among the county supervisors, and reminding him that “we got rid of your predecessor and we can get rid of you.”
Brown’s antics have already cost the county a $900,000 settlement in a lawsuit filed by Ann Goodrich — former head of Human Resources for the county — who was fired by Brown in 2001. Goodrich claimed she was subjected to a hostile work environment and terminated in retaliation for complaining about Brown’s remarks during a Buellton dinner speech, in which he referred to the concept of peace-loving Muslims as “bunk.” (He later claimed he was speaking only of nation-states.) Janean Daniels, the attorney who represented Goodrich in that suit, is the same attorney who contacted County Counsel Shane Stark on Tuesday, saying she had been “retained to represent Mr. Egar in his claims against the county and Mr. Brown,” according to Stark. Nevertheless, as an indication of the county supervisors’ regard for Brown, on Tuesday they unanimously and enthusiastically approved a $23,000 salary increase for him, to $220,000.
In Brown’s Defense Brown disputes the characterization of himself as a fear-mongering tyrant given to temper tantrums, saying that his 37 years in public office have been marked by collegiality, professionalism, and open discussion, most of it in the liberal havens of Berkeley and Hartford, Connecticut, where he was the city manager for 18 years. Hired 10 years ago as Santa Barbara’s first CEO, Brown’s arrival spelled the end of the county’s decentralized governance structure, in which all departments reported directly to the supervisors. Now, practically all departments that are not required by state or federal law to be independent of the CEO answer to Brown.
This power shift, though welcomed by some, has not been without bloodshed. Starting in 2005, for example, senior planning staff exited in droves when a key division of their department was placed under Brown’s direct supervision. Even Brown’s most vehement detractors admit that county planning needed overhaul, but they blame Brown for forcing out then-head of planning Val Alexeeff, who was gingerly implementing incremental bureaucratic reforms. Brown points out that Alexeeff, far from having his life destroyed, is now working as planning chief for Santa Clara County. Furthermore, Brown counters accusations that he is a hatchet man by pointing out that he has fired only one person — Goodrich — in his tenure as county CEO.
As for Egar’s allegations that Brown caused him to fear for his job, both Brown and Susan Paul — the Human Resources director who replaced Goodrich — point out that the public defender’s job security does not fall under the CEO’s jurisdiction. While Brown’s budget recommendations — including those for the Public Defender’s office — carry a lot of weight with the Board of Supervisors, the power to hire or fire the public defender resides exclusively with the supervisors.
Egar has also been accused of overlooking the important role of the supervisors in managing his complaints about Brown. While the supervisors were aware of the merit pay dispute between Brown and Egar’s office and had charged Brown to resolve it, Egar has offered no explanation for the fact that he never formally alerted the supervisors to the abuse he and his deputies were allegedly experiencing before simply walking off the job. “The one thing he could have done,” said Judge Frank Ochoa, “is come to the judges. I would have talked to the supervisors. … If there are problems with Mr. Brown, the supervisors ought to be told.”
However murky the details of the power struggle between Brown and Egar, and however irresolvable the question of whether Brown lost Egar by accident or design, one thing is crystal clear: Egar’s deputies consider his departure a terrible loss, and they lay the blame on Brown.