ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — The process to replace former Monroe County Public Defender Tim Donaher, who retired late last year, has whipped up a political maelstrom.
“I think very generally there have been a lot of questionable pieces to this process,” said Monroe County Democratic Committee Chair Zach King.
That process started in the Monroe County Legislature, which is charged with seating a Public Defender.
Due to a schism among local Democrats, Legislator Sabrina LaMar, a Democrat, agreed to caucus with the Republicans allowing them to retain their majority.
In return, LaMar became President of the legislature, which gave her the power to set up the selection process for the next Public Defender.
LaMar went on to establish a committee and appointed a majority of its members.
Many in the legal community expected former First Assistant Public Defender Jill Paperno, and current interim Public Defender, to succeed Donaher, but Paperno did not make it through to the committee’s second round.
This despite a letter of recommendation for Paperno from Donaher himself in which he wrote, “From her experience as a senior leader within the Office, Jill has developed the skills necessary to be an extremely effective Public Defender. I cannot recommend her highly enough.”
Political insiders tell News 8 that Paperno had publicly disagreed with LaMar on an issue that ultimately prompted LaMar and other Democrats to create a breakaway caucus.
“It’s hard to not see old politics playing out here,” King said. “The process, most of it, has been handled behind closed doors and changed multiple times since its inception in January and we’ve only seen one public event where the community was actually able to come and speak openly and even just to get a chance to hear from the candidates themselves.”
An anonymous letter from more than two dozen attorneys within the Public Defender’s Office also criticizes the process as too secretive.
Of the four attorneys to make it to the second round, one, Sara Valencia, does not have any criminal defense experience. Instead, she has worked in the past as an Assistant District Attorney.
In a public forum with all four candidates earlier this week, Valencia addressed her resume, which does include being past president of the Rochester Black Bar Association.
“So justice is paramount and I can tell you as a prosecutor I bring a fresh perspective,” Valencia told the crowd at Central Church of Christ in Rochester.
The three other candidates are Robert Ross Fogg, a defense attorney out of Buffalo, Julie Cianca, a Monroe County Assistant Public Defender, and Andre Vitale, a Public Defender in New Jersey.
Late Thursday, LaMar issued a statement saying Fogg and Cianca were the final two candidates.
The Public Defender’s Office provides attorneys to defendants who cannot afford legal counsel.
Monroe County’s office is particularly large with 100 attorneys and 40 support personnel.
Donaher had been selected for the job in 2008 — a selection process that also did not go without controversy. Calls out to Republican leadership in the county legislature have yet to be returned.
Read the full statement from the Monroe County Legislature President
“I want to thank the Community Public Defender Selection Panel for their hard work in making recommendations on our next Public Defender. The two candidates identified by the Panel are Robert Fogg and Julie Cianca. I look forward to discussing the steps forward with Legislative Leadership to meet and interview the identified candidates. As the Monroe County Charter states, “The Public Defender shall be appointed by the Monroe County Legislature for a term of two-years.” This authority is provided solely to the Legislature and while processes have differed, the Legislature has always delivered excellent selections.”
“The Community Public Defender Selection Panel became a priority of mine following recommendations from the Monroe County Bar Association, members of our community, and a review of past practice. The Panel incorporated many stakeholder groups – a family law attorney, a defense attorney, a retired Judge, the President of the Monroe County Bar Association, the past-President of the Monroe County Black Bar Association, a member of the faith community, and a member of the Judicial Process Commission. I look forward to receiving the final full report from the Panel that will detail their criteria, processes, and other pertinent details that will be shared with members of the Legislature and the Community as we move forward in making the final determination. This has been the most open process the Legislature has conducted in decades and I am confident that this Legislature will deliver the best possible Public Defender for our community.”