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Chief public defender resigns over tension with board

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Simmering tensions between the newly minted independent New Mexico Public Defender Commission and its executive, Chief Defender Jorge Alvarado, led this week to Alvarado’s resignation after two years and four months at the helm.

He said he was leaving with “a heavy heart,” mindful that there have been dramatic changes during the transition from being an agency overseen by the executive branch to one with an independent commission setting policy.

Alvarado’s announcement of his imminent departure, official April 1, was accompanied by a long, impassioned missive to the attorneys and staff in the department sent out late Monday.

And some hastened to say they are sorry to see him go.

The commission has scheduled an April 1 meeting, its first in months, at which an interim chief will be named, or at least a committee appointed to look into procedures to maintain continuity and seek a replacement, commission chairman Michael Stout said Tuesday.

Asked if Alvarado had been asked or encouraged to resign, Stout paused, then answered, “No.”

“We thank him for his contribution and wish him well,” Stout said. He added the commission would conduct “a thorough search, national and local” for a new chief.

Among strides cited by Alvarado in his letter were changing the name of the organization to Law Offices of the Public Defender to reflect the professional nature of the work and budget increases that have allowed the hiring of more staff to a current level of 439. The department has set up an independent technology network to ensure confidentiality and worked to get staff salaries comparable to those at the District Attorney offices, he said.

Attention has been devoted to one of the more contentious issues in the relationship between the executive and the commission: payment of contract defenders, particularly in rural areas.

But Alvarado said he believes “things have gotten to the point that I can no longer be effective in helping to achieve the ultimate goal. There is just too much resistance and unreasonable expectations with too many people wanting to run the office to be effective and orderly in the continued transition and growth of this organization.”

Hugh Dangler, a former chief defender in the previous system and a commission member, said the job is a tough one and was made more difficult by the need to hire a chief right away to comply with the statute even though the commissioners were brand new in a job with no precedents.

A constitutional amendment approved by voters removed the defender office from the governor’s purview and set up the commission.

Sophie Cooper, a team leader in the Albuquerque felony division, said Alvarado has overseen a turnaround from rapid turnover of attorneys to experienced lawyers who are winning motions and trials and have high morale.

“He has helped make changes in the way we practice law that are here to stay,” she said in an email.

Craig Acorn, an assistant defender, echoed the sentiment, saying, “I’ve had great jobs, but none better than this one and I can only ascribe that to the work Jorge put in to supporting his staff and improving the atmosphere.”