January 29, 2009 in Washington Voices

Court services to get scrutiny

Spokane Valley council wants to keep options open
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Road design work

The council also agreed to divert about $2.5 million from a project to repave Sprague Avenue, between University and Evergreen roads, to perform design work to make that and 11 other street projects “shovel-ready” for the federal economic stimulus grants Congress is expected to approve soon. City Councilwoman Diana Wilhite applauded the idea because “those that get to the trough first probably will fare better than those that come later.”

Spokane Valley will go ahead with a study of its contract for Spokane County District Court services even though the action may reduce the number of judges available to the city.

Irritated by another unwelcome surprise from county commissioners, City Council members rejected a plea from a delegation of District Court judges who are caught between the jostling governments.

Richard White, chief judge of the District Court, reminded council members that the thorny issue grew out of county commissioners’ recent decision to cancel the city’s contract for snow-plowing service this fall. City officials decided to study all 17 of its contracts with the county so they’d be ready if commissioners canceled another agreement.

No one on either side has complained about the court contract, White noted.

Still, council members voted 5-2 Tuesday to give notice they will cancel the contract Dec. 31 even though all they really want is to study alternatives. Gary Schimmels and Bill Gothmann dissented.

The cancellation notice preserves the city’s option to set up its own municipal court in January 2011. Otherwise, under state law, the city would have to wait until January 2015.

Tuesday’s vote set in motion commissioners’ plan to ask state officials to reduce the number of District Court judges authorized for Spokane County from 10 to eight. The proposed reduction reflects Spokane Valley cases as well as those now handled by the newly independent Spokane Municipal Court.

Commissioners had prepared a letter asking Chief Justice Gerry Alexander of the state Supreme Court to initiate a study that could lead the Legislature to eliminate two currently vacant Spokane County District Court judgeships. White said he was “positive” the letter would not be sent today as planned if the City Council backed away from the cancellation notice.

If Spokane Valley eventually decided to retain its court contract, there could be an even greater chance that an unelected court commissioner with limited powers would preside over the city’s branch courtroom, White warned.

Already, though, service in the Spokane Valley courtroom is mostly provided by commissioners.

District Court Judge Gregory Tripp held out the possibility of a full-time judge on the Spokane Valley bench and more precision in the way the city is billed. And White said the judges told county commissioners “heck no” when they proposed about three months ago to close the branch courtroom.

But council members didn’t take any of the carrots.

Mayor Rich Munson said commissioners could use their budget power to close the courtroom no matter what the judges want.

He and Councilwoman Rose Dempsey objected to what they saw as a threat by commissioners to eliminate judges if the council went ahead with its plan to issue the contract cancellation notice.

“I kind of feel like there’s a hammer over my head, that if I make the wrong decision I’m going to be punished,” Dempsey said. “I don’t like the threat.”

White said no threat was intended. Rather, he said, state law posed the same timing dilemma for commissioners as for the council. Commissioners are prohibited from seeking a reduction in the number of judges during a judicial election year – such as next year.

Commissioners must make their request this year or wait until 2011, White said. If they wait, the reduction couldn’t occur until 2015.

Munson called the commissioners’ decision to act this year “capricious and not prudent” because Spokane Valley can’t form its own court for two years, anyway.

In contrast, Munson said, “what we’re doing is a nonaction.”

On the other hand, Gothmann said, the city could do its study without a cancellation notice. The notice would “too much disturb a good system,” he said.

“If it’s not broken, then why are we trying to fix it at this point?” Schimmels asked.

“That’s a good question,” White said.

Council members Dick Denenny and Diana Wilhite expressed concern about the possible reduction in the number of judges, but weren’t persuaded by it.

“I don’t know if we need to weigh that,” Wilhite said of the judges’ plight. “We need to look out for our own situation.”

Denenny said he thought the ratio of commissioners to judges would remain unchanged, “given that the city of Spokane is out of the equation.”

Councilman Steve Taylor predicted the study will reinforce council members’ belief that the District Court service is good, and “we can go on about our business.”

City officials hoped they had turned a page in their troubled relationship with county commissioners when commissioners and District Court judges agreed to allow the city to withdraw its cancellation by Dec. 1. The council sent a fence-mending delegation to commissioners to make sure commissioners understood city officials have no desire to terminate the court contract.

City Manager Dave Mercier said he is confident the in-house study can be completed soon enough for the council to make a decision before the Dec. 1 deadline.

If the Legislature reduces the number of judges before then, prospects for a quick restoration aren’t good, White said. He said Spokane Valley’s share of the District Court workload is the equivalent to 1.1 judges or commissioners.

As a practical matter, commissioners are seeking to eliminate only one judgeship – and that position is vacant because of Judge Annette Plese’s election to the Superior Court last August. Commissioners never funded a 10th District Court position, which the Legislature authorized in June 2002.

Commissioners contend authorization for the 10th position has lapsed. Anyway, they say, state statistics show only 8.59 judicial officers currently are needed.

County commissioners say in a draft of their letter to Chief Justice Alexander that, if Spokane Valley cancels its contract, only 7.47 judges or court commissioners would be needed. They urge speedy action to prevent the election later this fall of a replacement for Plese.

Commissioners say they have, “for all practicable purposes,” eliminated court commissioner positions. White said three of five court commissioners have been laid off.

If the Spokane Valley council had agreed to drop its cancellation notice, White said he “envisioned” county commissioners would have appointed a replacement for Plese within a month.

In other business Tuesday, the City Council:

• Approved a third one-year renewal of an overall seven-year contract with Poe Asphalt street and stormwater maintenance. When Steve Robinson, chief executive of Spokane Rock Products objected that his firm should have another chance to bid on the contract, the council rejected Schimmel’s motion to table the contract for a month. Denenny and Dempsey supported the motion.

• Granted a Central Valley School District request to ban parking along Central Valley High School’s Rotchford Road frontage and along both sides of Long Road and Fourth Avenue at Greenacres Elementary School during school hours. There was no public testimony.

• Approved a one-year contract, renewable up to five years, with the Beacon Hill Catering and Events for food services at CenterPlace. Beacon Hill would be the center’s official caterer, but others will be allowed if they meet city standards – which include paying 10 to 15 percent commissions to the city.

John Craig may be contacted at johnc@spokesman.com.

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