Employees of the public defender's office in northern Minnesota are taking the unusual step of lobbying against the reappointment of the area's longtime chief public defender, citing a toxic workplace and culture of retaliation.
Anonymous staffers sent a letter last week to the Minnesota Board of Public Defense urging them not to reappoint Kristine Kolar to the post when the matter comes up at the board's noon meeting Tuesday.
Kolar was first appointed chief public defender of the Ninth Judicial District in 1996. If she receives a recommendation for reappointment from State Public Defender Bill Ward, who leads the board, she can be reappointed by a majority vote of the board's seven members. Kolar declined to comment Monday.
The judicial district encompasses 17 counties in northwest Minnesota from the Canadian border to Aitkin County.
"You haven't asked for our input on this issue, but we would like to share it nonetheless," said the staffers' letter. "... [survey] responses reveal a culture of fear, retaliation, micro-management, and lack of support from Ms. Kolar."
"The vast majority of respondents felt [Kolar] does not care about the health and well-being of employees, fails to provide assistance and support when needed, and does not understand the day-to-day challenges of the job," the staff letter said of a survey conducted on her reappointment. "... Ms. Kolar has become an impediment to our work, our health, and our security as an organization."
The board's chief administrator, Kevin Kajer, said that per the board's protocols, the office reached out last summer to all staff in the district and to stakeholders regarding the chief public defender post.
Ward submitted his recommendation on Kolar's reappointment to the board but "the substance of the recommendation is a personnel matter and will not be disclosed," Kajer said Monday.
Asked how the board will consider the staff letter in considering Kolar's reappointment, Kajer said the issue was a personnel matter and not public information.
According to the staff letter: Kolar does not listen to staff and "does not treat employees as people," she alienated stakeholders and she doesn't help cover cases "when attorneys are drowning."
"Employees are terrified of retaliation from Ms. Kolar; she gets her way by firing people or forcing them to change positions when they are out of her favor," the letter said.
Eighty percent of staffers surveyed said Kolar was the top reason for staff quitting, according to the letter, which noted that several vacancies remain unfilled.
Lindsey Van Beek, who worked under Kolar for 3 1⁄2 years and who has worked in the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office for 2 1⁄2 years, wrote a separate e-mail to the board lobbying against Kolar.
"If the Board found a culture of fear in Hennepin, then by comparison, Bemidji had a culture of bone-chilling terror," Van Beek wrote, referencing the board's refusal in 2020 to reappoint Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty.