Merced County public defender plans to resign

Merced County Public Defender Eric Dumars said Tuesday night that he plans to resign after a lengthy closed-door session earlier in the day by the county supervisors to consider his possible dismissal.

The abrupt announcement by Dumars came after being away from his office for more than three months on an undisclosed leave of absence. Dumars on Tuesday emailed his staff stating his reasons for his planned departure.

Dumars told the Sun-Star he hasn’t yet submitted his formal letter of resignation to the supervisors. He said Tuesday his resignation won’t be effective immediately.

The board met in closed session beginning 8:30 a.m. Tuesday to consider “public employee discipline/dismissal/release” of the county’s public defender, according to the agenda. When the supervisors emerged at 10 to begin the regular meeting, no decision had been made.

Supervisors went back into closed session after the board meeting for an hour, according to Chairman and District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion.

Dumars’ resignation letter to his staff, obtained by the Sun-Star, highlights “much reflection and a deep sadness.” He also admitted personal lapses in judgment, although he wasn’t specific.

“I understand some of you feel a sense of confusion or even betrayal for my personal lapses in judgment on and about September 28th,” Dumars wrote in the letter. “I set a poor example as a representative and diminished the respect of our office. For that I am sorry. However, it is equally important for me to say that every person makes mistakes and gets sick in different ways.”

In the email, he also spoke of his accomplishments during his time at the Public Defender’s Office, such as improving access to imprisoned clients, purchasing new equipment and implemented a new case management system.

“I earned respect for our office by filing and winning writs, and winning trials. In exchange you respected me as a colleague,” Dumars wrote. “I will carry that with me in my future endeavors and I am truly thankful to you. It has been a tremendous pleasure to work with each of you to ensure justice for our clients.”

Dumars said he plans to be around for a few weeks to help finish some work, according to his letter.

“Anyone wishing to speak with me should know that I welcome the opportunity,” Dumars wrote. “Anyone who does not should know that I understand and have respect for your space.”

Dumars has been public defender since March 25, 2013, county documents show, and served as acting public defender since December 2011. He was hired August 1, 2005, as a deputy public defender II.

The public defender is appointed by the county’s chief executive officer and confirmed by the supervisors.

O’Banion declined comment about the closed-door discussions, but said the item likely won’t appear on a future agenda. “Direction was given to staff, that’s all I can say at this point,” he said. “In my opinion, I do not see it coming back to the board at the next meeting.”

O’Banion said the vote by four board members to give direction to the staff on how to proceed was unanimous. District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey recused herself from the closed-door sessions, O’Banion said. Kelsey’s daughter, Ellie Souders, worked for the public defender’s office as an extra deputy public defender until 12 days ago.

Souders voluntarily resigned her position on Jan. 3, according to County Management Analyst Mike North. She was originally hired in March 2011, then laid off and rehired on Aug. 3, 2011.

Kelsey said Tuesday she did not recuse herself but had other engagements during the closed-door sessions and didn’t attend.

If Kelsey had included herself in the discussion deciding the public defender’s future with the county, it could have been perceived as a conflict of interest, said April Hejka-Ekins, professor emeritus in the political science and public administration department of California State University, Stanislaus.

“Even if it is legal, the problem is it gives the appearance that it may be a conflict of interest because it borders the issue of favoritism,” Hejka-Ekins said. “When her daughter actually worked with that person it would be a lot safer if the person didn’t become involved with the decision.”