PITTSFORD — Newly appointed Monroe County Public Defender Tim Donaher found himself on the defensive during a nearly two-hour public discussion that took place at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse March 5.
According to a statement from the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Greater Rochester Community of Churches, the two groups agreed to meet with Donaher because of concerns about the process that led to his selection. Donaher replaces longtime public defender Ed Nowak, who retired last year after three decades on the job.
Members of the community have called the replacement process tarnished, citing the exclusion of many Monroe County residents — a large percentage who were minorities — from the county Legislature’s public-safety committee’s Feb. 9 meeting for candidate-interviews as well as the Feb. 12 meeting during which Donaher was selected.
According to news reports, deputies escorted people to the Legislature chambers Feb. 12. Those allowed in were scanned with metal detectors and their belongings were searched for weapons. The majority of residents who came to the meeting were prevented from entering by deputies who instructed the crowd to watch a simulcast from across the street at City Place. Assemblyman David Gantt and two local ministers also were arrested after protesting the Feb. 9 meeting and refusing to leave. Speakers at the Feb. 12 meeting were escorted to the podium by deputies, according to some of the speakers at the March 5 gathering.
Sister of St. Joseph Beth LeValley said a coalition of community and faith-based organizations — the Monroe County Public Defender Coalition — has formed in response to these events and to ensure that history does not repeat itself two years from now when a public defender will again be appointed or reappointed. The coalition is hosting a meeting March 8, and Donaher said he also will speak at another public forum March 10.
Sister LeValley said the Sisters of St. Joseph and GRCC held their community conversation with Donaher at the Pittsford motherhouse to show that residents throughout the county felt that their civil rights were violated during the selection process.
Meeting organizers said their goal is to ensure that — in spite of the way in which the process was handled — Donaher will be diligent in his duties to protect the poor who cannot otherwise afford legal services.
“I know it’s going to be my actions over the course of the next two years that will speak to my commitment and the work we do to protect the indigent accused of crimes,” Donaher said.
He said his office is already working to increase its outreach efforts, including boosting the efforts of the office’s advisory council. Community-outreach efforts will include future sessions with such community organizations as the Puerto Rican Youth Development & Resource Center, he said.
After Donaher made some brief remarks, he turned the meeting over to the audience of about 50 people so that they could share their concerns.
Marvin Mich, director of social policy and research for Catholic Family Center, asked why Donaher consented to what Mich called a flawed process. Other speakers also wondered why Donaher didn’t bow out as a candidate. Some people also suggested he resign in light of the public outcry.
“You’re entering (the office) with a cloud over your heads,” Mich added.
Myra Brown from the local Anti-Racism Movement said the process was an affront to people of color and that Donaher cannot separate the office from the process.
“You don’t get to opt out,” she said.
Too often, Brown added, white people ask African-Americans to “move on” when a racist situation occurs and turn to African-Americans for help. The audience greeted her comments with applause.
“It feels like a knife in my stomach,” she said. “I’m tired of that kind of institutional racism. I’m tired of moving on with injustice.”
Donaher said his role was not to dictate the selection process. For them to come out publicly with a position on that process would hurt the office and the clients it serves, according to Donaher and two of the assistant public defenders who also spoke during the meeting. Donaher also said the office staff encouraged him to stay in the process — which would have followed the same course with or without him — for fear someone less competent would have been appointed.
“I personally felt a sense of overwhelming sadness … that my interest in becoming public defender had devolved into potential mass arrests,” he said of events at the Feb. 12 county Legislature meeting. “Seeing people threatened … and people treated poorly, I still feel terribly bad.”
Roger Brazill, a second assistant in Donaher’s office, said he wanted to offer a different perspective to those in the audience who felt upset with the level of police presence at the Feb. 9 and 12 meetings.
“For a brief moment in time, you got a taste of what our clients and clients’ families see when they come to court,” he added. “And it’s not a taste that’s good.”
Bob Bonn, a member of the Monroe County Public Defender Coalition, said he had participated more than 30 years ago in the merit-selection process that resulted in Nowak’s selection, and said he cannot understand why such a broad-based community process was thrown out.
“This has nothing to do with your qualifications,” Bonn added. “You talk about the concerns for your office and you don’t want clients hurt. That’s what all of us are about who want merit selection. You can’t have it both ways.”
Sister of Mercy Gratia L’Esperance also expressed concerns about the selection process and said she had never seen such a show of police force. But she also asked whether creation of a proposed statewide public defender’s office would increase the resources available to the Rochester office. Donaher acknowledged the need for more resources, noting that some members of his staff are forced to carry 1,000 cases in a year, which he said the best attorney in the world would be hard pressed to handle.
“Because you fly under the radar normally, most of us are not aware there are problems,” Sister L’Esperance said.
Donaher said he supports pending legislation in both the state Senate and Assembly that would create a state public defender’s office. Gov. Eliot Spitzer also has proposed his own public-defender legislation. A statewide office would help by potentially adding funding and staffing to local public-defender offices, Donaher said.
“We do an excellent job with the resources we’re afforded, but we could do a lot better. We should be,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Monroe County Public Defender Coalition will meet at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 8, at Central Church of Christ, 101 S. Plymouth Ave., Rochester. Public Defender Tim Donaher also will speak at a forum March 10 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the atrium at City Place, 50 W. Main St., Rochester.