Saturday, February 5, 2011

Guest opinion: Defenders panel works to improve, hopes for needed funding Story Discussion By KENNETH OLSON | Posted: Thursday, February 3, 2011

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I have been on the Public Defender Commission for about two years. I have reviewed with interest and some dismay, Jim Taylor's resignation letter. The dismay arises from the timing and the attendant negative article in the Helena newspaper (Jan. 12 Billings Gazette). I have tremendous respect for Jim Taylor and all that he has contributed to this system, in its inception, creation and nurturing.
I don't presume to know Mr. Taylor's thoughts other than what he expressed in his letter. Nor do I choose to debate with him nor attempt to change his mind. I do believe the American University study, which Mr. Taylor was instrumental in bringing about, has caused everyone in the system to focus on improving it. I have had the unique opportunity to observe its effect. Change does not occur overnight, nor does it occur without resistance and setbacks. But, I believe that significant change has occurred, and is occurring, particularly due to the system's reaction to the AU study.
As a commissioner, I have been pleased that, when an issue arises, it is promptly dealt with by the office. I agree with Mr. Taylor that we are lucky to have Harry Freebourne's services and echo his praise of Harry's contributions. But I have seen Randi Hood, Harry, Cathy Doyle, and their staff pull together to address constantly arising issues. I have not seen resistance nor complaints but, instead, compliance or good faith attempts at same.
The commission has made consistent demands on Randi Hood and the main office. We have had prompt responses. I have seen a great effort to make things work. Speaking only for myself, over the last two years, I've seen nothing that would cause me to believe she needs to be replaced.
Better communications
The efforts of Mike Sherwood caused the commission to try to make the process and operation more open to everyone in the system. We've established liaisons. We've held meetings where the troops have had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with commissioners. They are free to tell us their problems and complaints. Many of them have had the courage and the commitment to do so. That opportunity to communicate remains and is encouraged.
At commission meetings, we now have most regional deputies, several FTEs, contract attorneys, staff members, and others in attendance. I believe we have had more feedback, accessibility, and discourse now than when I was first a commissioner. We've addressed problems in Kalispell, Billings, and Missoula when we've become aware of them. Are there still problems? Sure. Do we still fall short at times? Certainly. But, my perception is that we have a much more open, cooperative, and engaged group of people — across the board — that we did when I became a part of the commission.
The AU criticisms have all been addressed. Our information gathering system has been greatly improved. Our attorneys, FTEs and contractors, are cooperating to input data relating to case openings and closings. Our case weighting system is in place and providing better and much needed information. All our personnel have been evaluated. I believe significant efforts are being made, by everyone, to improve the system.
We are trying once again to convince the Legislature to increase the funding. It is woefully low. We all know that. But, in the end, we are at the mercy of the Legislature.
I am proud of the effort Fritz Gillespie has made as our new chairman. He has provided effective leadership and dedicated a great deal of time and effort to the tasks at hand. He is to be commended.
Work in the trenches
I realize that this system can only work effectively, through the efforts of those in the trenches. It is not easy work, especially with the pay that is available. I urge all to keep the faith, keep up the good work that you are doing, and keep striving to improve the system. I don't know that it is necessary to tear it down in order to improve it. As a commission, we certainly have the will to keep improving the system.
Hopefully, the Legislature will listen to the strong case that has been made to fund the pay ladder, approve hiring new FTEs and increase the hourly rate for the many fine contract attorneys. If it does not happen, it will not be due to a lack of concern, effort or will of anyone in the system, including the members of the Public Defender Commission.
Kenneth R. Olson practices law in Great Falls and serves as vice chairman of the Montana Public Defender Commission.
Kenneth R. Olson practices law in Great Falls and serves as vice chairman of the Montana Public Defender Commission.