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DA race a 'performance review,' challenger says

Elections — District attorney candidates field questions at forum last week in McMinnville

The two candidates in the first contested Yamhill County district attorney election in 20 years faced off last week, ultimately agreeing on most policy issues but showing differences on management style and how much the county’s top legal officer should be involved outside the office.

Incumbent Brad Berry has been challenged by Deputy District Attorney Alicia Eagan for his long-held seat, which he was elected to in 1996 and which he has run for unopposed in every election since.

Eagan told the audience at the McMinnville Noon Kiwanis last week that her decision to run came down to holding a job performance review for Berry.

”When an incumbent runs repeatedly unopposed, there is no opportunity for anyone to ask them questions or to get answers,” she said.

Noting that she’s told Berry many times she does not want his job, Eagan said she never thought she would be in this position but that her beliefs about the system, combined with concerns she’s heard from others, led her to file this year.

“I have not enjoyed it and for many fleeting moments I’ve regretted it,” she said. “But I am proud that I did it, because I gave an opportunity to others to ask their questions.”

Eagan said she doesn’t have major policy issues with Berry, although she’s heard from others who do, but that she has some personal complaints about how the office is run.

Eagan also addressed the perception that she was representing the views of her fellow deputy district attorneys – all of whom have indicated they do not share her views on Berry’s performance – and said that’s not what she meant when she said her “colleagues” supported her challenging Berry.

“My colleagues cross the lines: defense attorneys, prosecutors, defendants, witnesses, grand jurors and the citizens,” Eagan said.

Questions to the candidates touched on public records policy, jurisdictional issues (such as when the DA should ask another county’s office to handle a case), the pros and cons of the death penalty, how fairly the county treats victims and defendants, and even a mock criminal trial in which each candidate had two minutes to respond to a hypothetical defense attorney throwing doubt on a case.

Both candidates said they believe the death penalty has a place in Oregon, both would transfer jurisdiction when there is a real or perceived conflict of interest, and both would look to state statutes when determining whether records are releasable.

Both won their mock legal arguments, judging by the audience-jury exclamations of “Guilty!”

The only question that elicited considerably different answers was whether the DA should be an “active participant” in state and national DA organizations, such as the National District Attorneys Association, and how much of a benefit the county gets out of that participation.

Eagan recalled when she first began working in Berry’s office, she was proud to work with a DA who was involved with organizations outside the office so much.

“However, over the years it has seemed that commitment to those organizations has overshadowed commitment to those who stay behind in the office,” she said, adding she would like to see more tangible materials coming back from meetings outside the office. “There’s nothing wrong with being involved but your office needs to come first, and sometimes I feel it is not.”

Berry countered that “not only is it a benefit, I think it should be a requirement of DAs” to participate with organizations outside the office.

He highlighted that participating in the NDAA and learning from other DAs is how practices get challenged and improved.

“You go out and see what other people are doing and (they) give you ideas which you bring back, not just to the office but you bring them back to the county as a whole,” he said.

Noting some of the benefits to the county, Berry mentioned the courthouse dog that came about through his involvement with the victims’ crime committee arm of the NDAA. He also cited a program he learned about that was employed in the El Paso, Texas, district attorney’s office, which provided “a different way to approach investigation on domestic violence cases.”

He brought that initiative back from the NDAA presentation and the Newberg-Dundee Police Department began employing the same practices. As a result, Berry said, trials of domestic violence cases have been reduced from an average of 40 to 60 percent trial rate, down to less than 15 percent in the NDPD area.

Berry also noted the Major Crime Response Team idea he brought back from attending a meeting in 1999, as further evidence of the benefit his outside involvement brings to the county.

In the end, Eagan told the crowd that while she could fulfill the duties of district attorney, “I don’t have a huge issue with the one you have,” and that the main idea behind her campaign was to allow people to review Berry’s performance.

“Whether or not they took it, I’ve given them an opportunity to speak,” she said. “And I think that’s important to the democratic process.”