The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

By Sean C. Morgan
Of The New Era 

City officials consider moving Municipal Court to police station

 

April 5, 2016

AN INFORMAL DRAWING depicts how Sweet Home Municipal Court could fit inside the existing Sweet Home Police Department building. City officials are gathering information about possible costs.

City officials are thinking inside the box to come up with a new way to house Sweet Home Municipal Court: inside the Sweet Home Police Department.

The Administration and Finance Committee reviewed a proposal to do exactly that during a meeting held on March 15, directed staff to further develop the proposal and take it to the City Council.

The court is currently located in a modular building behind City Hall, 1140 12th Ave. The main courtroom also is the City Council chambers.

The building needs repairs, said Finance Director Pat Gray. The city at one time regularly transferred funds into the building reserve fund, but to help cover revenue shortfalls in the Police Department budget in recent years, it hasn’t transferred any money since the 2010-11 budget.

City staff proposed funding improvements to City Hall and the modular building around 2012, Gray said, but the proposal died in Budget Committee.

About a year ago, Pat Gray told the Budget Committee that the city needs to do something else with court to improve security and meet other needs, such as providing a more private room for juries to deliberate. The city budgeted $500,000 then for the current fiscal year to pay for possible solutions, 2015-16; but it has not expended any money.

Things have changed with the court in recent years, Gray said. Mental issues and meltdowns during court are more common, though, she said, she doesn’t know why. She noted that the courtroom and court office are “isolated.”

“We’re getting the dynamics of the mental health issues are getting a little stranger. There was always a little concern about safety issues. ( We don’t just do traffic. It’s the criminal side of things that we’re dealing with that are a little scarier some days.”

To help mitigate those concerns, the city installed cameras.

Earlier this month, Gray said, the court had an incident in which “a family was rude and abrupt.”

“They took off. He (the judge) was trying to get them for contempt of court, and we couldn’t find them.”

They wouldn’t have acted that way with the court staff if a police officer had been in the area, Gray said.

“They take more advantage of it because they are more isolated.”

The state of the building is an issue too, Gray said. The city replaced the roof this year at a cost of around $5,000. It also needs siding.

The current courtroom also is too small, and on court day, people have to wait outside the room in the lobby and outside the building.

“The big issue is security,” said Councilor Greg Mahler, a member of the three-councilor Administration and Finance Committee. “That’s the first goal.”

The city leased the building following the flood of February 1996, after the Police Department, located in the City Hall basement flooded, endangering emergency electronic equipment. The city moved the Police Department into the modular building, where it stayed until construction of the current Police Department building at 1950 Main St. was completed in 2000. The city financed the construction from its Building Reserve Fund and a 10-year bond levy that it paid off in six years.

City officials considered but decided against adding Municipal Court to the building then.

Since Budget Committee meetings last year, the city’s Administration and Finance Committee and staff members have been looking at different ideas.

During the meeting on March 15, Police Chief Jeff Lynn outlined a tentative plan to move court into the Police Department building.

The training room would become the Sweet Home Municipal Court’s courtroom, larger than it has now. The room is visible from the outside through the windows from the McDonald’s driveway and parking lot.

The dispatch and records area, both visible from the lobby through customer service windows, would be divided between police and court. Court personnel would take over the dispatch area, and dispatch would move into the records area.

The city would move the wall dividing the two rooms to equalize the space in each room, Lynn said. That would involve moving a substantial amount of wiring for the dispatch consoles.

Off of the cell area, the suspect interview room would be used for jury deliberations and maintained for interviewing suspects too, Lynn said. Past that would be a specialized security door in a hallway, blocking access by jury members, attorneys and other members of the public to the Police Department’s office and dispatch spaces.

The judge would have an office space beyond that door, among Police Department offices, and access the courtroom through a new door from the current dispatch area.

The cell area would continue to be located across a hall from the training room-courtroom, providing easy access in either direction, and space could be made available to allow attorneys and clients to communicate privately.

Most attorney-client talks on court day aren’t really private, said City Attorney Robert Snyder, but the proposal would give them a roof. Having just one private space would be a huge improvement.

The plan would include three main projects: a new security door, moving a wall and a new door between court and the new court office.

“We are all giving up a little room,” Lynn said. It may not be the best solution, but it seems to be a viable solution.

“It’s a much more secure facility and readily accessible.”

Council members expressed support.

“I think that’s a real viable option,” said Council Ryan Underwood, a member of the Administration and Finance Committee.

“I’m more than willing to look at it,” said Mayor Jim Gourley, chairman of the Administration and Finance Committee.

“Yeah, it’s doable,” Mahler said. “I’ve felt the Municipal Court needs to be at the Police Department. The issue has been the expense.”

It beats spending half a million dollars or more on a building, he said.

“If that cost over $25,000, I would be shocked.”

 
 
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