Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Where's Wayne?

Mustard Street contributor Miss Lucy’s recent reflections on selecting a new public defender raised a question that occurred to us again yesterday, when the Democrat and a Chronicle reported that County Legislature President Wayne Zyra has disbanded the applicant screening committee he'd established.

We think highly of Zyra for setting up a bipartisan screening committee of professionals.   It consisted of judges and bar association members, with knowledge and experience necessary to evaluate applicants for the position of public defender, in painful contrast to so-called "community groups" of unclear origins, and even less clear credentials for evaluating an attorney's legal skills or ability to run a law office.

Zyra's statesmanship secured the support of County Bar Association President Tom Smith -- before Smith prostituted the Bar Association to David Gantt, and withdrew his support.   Similarly, Zyra secured the support of County Legislature Democratic Leader Harry Bronson, before Bronson caved under similar pressure.   Because of the clear integrity of the process proposed by Zyra, the bipartisan group of judges he appointed stuck by the panel to the end.

Zyra accomplished something to be proud of.

But have we overlooked something, or has President Zyra been missing in action for much of the time since his joint announcement of the selection committee with Democratic Leader Bronson, back around the beginning of December?

"Zyra did not return repeated calls seeking comment . . . ," reported the Messenger Post papers on January 7.

OK, that can happen.   People take vacations, or get the flu, or are otherwise unavailable for a while.   But this was the pattern during most of the controversy, with Zyra consistently failing to step up publicly to defend his own screening committee.

The Legislature President gave the Daily Record a phone interview on December 13.   He commented to the D&C on December 14, and again in another article the next day.   But that was a month ago. And that was the last time we heard from Wayne Zyra publicly on this subject.

"Zyra did not return City Newspaper's calls last week," reported City News on December 19.

Why ever not?   Being on the right side of the merits of this issue allowed Zyra to hit a home run with almost any public statement he might make about it.

"Legislature President Wayne Zyra was unavailable for comment," said R News in its story on January 10.

Has this guy gone AWOL?

Zyra should have been out front and center defending his panel.   He should have denounced Bar Association President Tom Smith publicly, for Smith's disgraceful stunt of trying to intimidate the judges on the selection panel into quitting, threatening them with disciplinary action.   Smith's only goal here was to strip the panel of the legitimacy that having a bipartisan group of judges gave it.   (The judges, to their credit, and with a better grasp of the ethical rules than Smith, held firm throughout.)

Last week David Gantt staged a public meeting at the Aenon Baptist Church, to pressure Zyra into placing Gantt’s flunkies, in the guise of “community group” representatives, on the panel.   And to smear the panel’s credibility if Gantt couldn’t get his way.

Where was Zyra?   He should have had a press conference the next morning, to state why he wouldn't buy into Gantt's plan to politicize the PD's selection.

But instead he disbands the selection committee, giving David Gantt, Tom Smith and Democratic partisans in the County Legislature exactly what they wanted -- to torpedo a fair process.   Thereby being able to malign any person selected by the County Legislature, however qualified, as a "political appointee."

If Zyra has been seriously ill for the last month, we hope he gets better, and retract our criticism.   (But in that case wouldn't he have designated another legislator as spokesperson?)   Otherwise ... isn't something strange here?   Aren't politicians media hounds who can't get in front of a camera or microphone fast enough?   Zyra's silence is baffling.

Through total failure to speak or act, Wayne Zyra has given his political opponents free run of the field to rack up PR points, without even attempting to defend a well-conceived, bipartisan selection process.   By failing to stand up publicly for his own plan, Zyra has let down the process, the plan, the judges who stood by him, his constituents, his other supporters and, most importantly, the public.

Which is the real Wayne Zyra?   The statesman who put together an admirable selection panel?   Or the cowardly lion of the Republican Party, a time-server who’s afraid to stand up for his own principles?   If so – is this the best Republicans can come up with for President of the Legislature?

To the end, Zyra remained true to recent form.   Yesterday’s Democrat and Chronicle story about the panel’s disbanding concluded with this:
"Calls to Zyra about the news release were not returned Monday night."

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