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.


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