Lorinda Youngcourt received negative feedback about her management style that persuaded County Executive Dow Constantine not to give her a second term.
King County’s top public defender and first permanent director of the nascent Department of Public Defense resigned late last month after Executive Dow Constantine told her he wouldn’t appoint her to a second term because of negative feedback about her management style.
Lorinda Youngcourt announced her resignation in a brief email to employees sent shortly after 5 p.m. on the Friday before the July 4 holiday week.
“It has been my pleasure to work with you over the past three and half years as King County’s first Public Defender,” the June 29 email said. “I have decided that it is time for someone else to lead you in the next leg of the journey. I am resigning my position as Public Defender and will not be returning to the office.”
One of the department’s two deputy directors also stepped down in the wake of Youngcourt’s departure.
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Youngcourt, 55, earned nearly $195,000 last year.
In an email Saturday, she touted establishing a new internship-training program, implementing new case-management and employee-evaluation systems, and setting up a 24-hour on-call service for indigent clients.
“During my tenure, I consistently requested an increase in the hourly rate for assigned counsel in order to attract and retain the best attorneys,” she added. “…Despite my repeated requests, the Executive did not include the requested increase in his budget.”
Youngcourt’s resignation as leader of the 415-employee department with a biennial budget of $148 million came after Constantine informed her he would seek a new director to fill the job’s next four-year term beginning in January.
Casey Sixkiller, Constantine’s chief operating officer, said Friday the executive “looked to a number of sources of information” when making his decision, including results from an annual county employee survey that rated the department’s leadership poorly in vision, communications and other categories.
Findings from other surveys presented to Constantine by two employee unions — SEIU Local 925, representing about 350 public defenders, paralegals and support staff; and Teamsters Local 117, which represents about 36 department supervisors and managers — found an overwhelming majority of respondents didn’t support Youngcourt’s reappointment as director.
Based on such concerns, Constantine hired the MFR Law Group to review Youngcourt’s leadership. At a cost of $63,190, the firm provided Constantine with a “verbal assessment” of a review that found public defense clients well served and employees receiving good pay and benefits. But the assessment “also echoed some of the critical feedback” received about Youngcourt, Sixkiller said.
Sixkiller added the public defense department’s 11-member volunteer advisory board also unanimously recommended Youngcourt not be reappointed.
“Once he (Constantine) made it clear he was not going to reappoint her, Director Youngcourt decided she was going to resign,” Sixkiller added.
The advisory board must come up with a list of director candidates to present to Constantine, who then will make a nomination to the County Council.
While the advisory board coordinates its search, Constantine has named Anita Khandelwal, deputy director of law and policy, as the department’s interim director based on the board’s unanimous recommendation, Sixkiller said.
The King County Department of Public Defense, which provides legal help to people who are accused of a crime and cannot afford an attorney, emerged after the state Supreme Court ruled that employees of four independent public defense contractors were allowed to enroll in the county’s Public Employees’ Retirement System.
In July 2013, the county hired the employees, and four months later voters approved a measure to create a single Department of Public Defense within the executive branch.
In 2015, Constantine chose as the department’s first director Youngcourt — a career defense attorney who had created the first public-defense system in Lawrence County, Indiana. The Metropolitan King County Council unanimously confirmed her appointment.
In her new job, Youngcourt was tasked with creating a unified agency from four formerly independent firms — The Defender Association, Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons (SCRAP), Associated Counsel for the Accused, and Northwest Defenders.
“I didn’t come to Washington state because I needed a job. I had a great life in Indiana. This is a career opportunity and a chance for me to pass on knowledge,” Youngcourt said shortly after Constantine announced her as his choice. “It’s very exciting at 52 years old to do something like this.”
Some of her actions drew criticism from within the department. Early on, Youngcourt hired La Mer Kyle-Griffiths — who some viewed as an old friend of hers — as the department’s training director, and soon replaced the then-SCRAP division director with Kyle-Griffiths’ husband.
In her email Saturday, Youngcourt said she knew of Kyle-Griffiths professionally, but there was no relationship. Youngcourt added that both Kyle-Griffiths and her husband were well qualified and hired through a competitive process.
Kyle-Griffiths, who later was promoted to a deputy director, resigned from that $163,000 position Wednesday.
During her tenure, Youngcourt advocated for bail reform, contending the pretrial detention system in Seattle and King County sometimes sets bails too high and discriminates against the poor; and she supported King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg’s decision not to file 1,500 low-level misdemeanor cases from 2017 to focus resources on more serious violations.
Seattle University Law School Vice Dean Paul Holland, who chairs the public defense advisory board, said this week the quality of the department’s public defense services remained consistently high under Youngcourt’s leadership.
“But we have also heard some of the concerns people had about communication in the office and the work environment,” Holland said. “As a volunteer board, we had not had the opportunity nor the capacity to investigate those concerns fully, so we’re glad the executive decided to commission a review.”
But exactly what the MFR Law Group discovered during its review hasn’t been disclosed. Sixkiller said the law firm communicated its preliminary findings to Constantine verbally and didn’t write a final report reflecting its overall findings.
“Because Lorinda resigned, we didn’t feel the need to invest the additional resources to have a final report generated,” he said.
Sixkiller added that despite Youngcourt’s premature departure, she achieved her primary mission to unify the four public defense groups into one department.
“As a result of that, she is leaving the department in a place that is serving the needs of her clients,” he said.