published Saturday, February 5th, 2011

Leave City Court where it is

Mayor Ron Littlefield’s proposal to move the City Court operations from the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building to the old Tennessee American Water Co. building near City Hall has needlessly stirred a tempest in a teapot. We have to wonder why he raised the idea.

The mayor claims — but hasn’t yet revealed hard figures — that the move could save upwards of $50,000 a year. The two City Court judges, Russell Bean and Sherry Paty, dispute that. Given the complexities of the move, and the need for a relatively large courtroom and space for a city court clerk’s staff of 27, meaningful savings would be hard to achieve.

Bean, moreover, contends the mayor has a more devious motive — retaliation against Paty for a ruling that went against the city’s interest in the McKamey Animal Shelter lawsuit against a local Pet Company store. Though the mayor’s critics would be apt to believe that, the mayor denies it.

Vengeance aside, there is ample reason to leave the City Court operation where it is.

Space, security, efficiency

Its placement in the Courts Building works well and offers ample courtroom space, which is more than can be said of the old water company building. Use of the city-county facility, which houses the courtrooms of the five General Sessions Court judges plus City Court, and the three state Criminal Court judges, also allows City Court the benefit of the Courts Building security checks. And it provides easy access — on the rare occasion it may be needed — to bring prisoners into the courtroom from the adjacent county jail.

More importantly, it permits valuable flexibility for city police officers to move between City Court, where they handle minor traffic violations on city tickets and city code and ordinance violations, and Sessions Court, which has jurisdiction over DUI’s, drug offenses and misdemeanor charges that often stem from traffic stops.

That convenient flexibility — both courts are on the same floor — has become more important since the city forfeited its constitutional court status some years ago by giving former City Court Judge Walter Williams a mid-term pay increase. That’s forbidden for judges with jurisdiction over state laws, and it means City Court judges now cannot handle DUI’s and other misdemeanors and felony crimes.

Since Chattanooga’s police officers must therefore regularly appear in General Sessions and City courts, it is clearly is in the city’s financial interest to make it possible for police officers to schedule their courtroom hours efficiently to keep down court time and overtime pay.

It’s interesting that Littlefield has interjected the City Court’s limited jurisdiction — he called the court a “toothless tiger” — into the argument. He also suggested that the city might want to dissolve its City Court and turn its ordinance and code offenders over to Sessions Court.

Given City Court’s jurisdictional limitations, it would be worth considering whether two judges are actually needed. But abolishing the court entirely might shortchange the city’s code enforcement needs.

In any case, that’s easier said than done. Even the mayor admits that it might require a vote to amend the city’s charter. And if it were proposed, General Sessions Court judges would likely lobby against taking on jurisdiction for municipal ordinances.

Moreover, there’s a work ethic issue in any change. Like the City Court judges who split the morning and late afternoon sessions of their court, the General Sessions Court judges — though they all get the same salary as full-time state trial court judges — also hold jobs that are considerably less than full time. The minimal hours and short work days that judges in both courts work remain the stuff of local legend among lawyers and court watchers.

The city, of course, could seek to restore its court’s jurisdiction over state laws and misdemeanors, since its judges’ pay is again fixed for a full term. But according to one legal expert, to do so the city would have to meet more recent Municipal Court Reform Act standards, which now call for the election of court clerks for state constitutional courts.

Charter hurdles

Thus the city likely would also have to amend its charter by public vote for an elected City Court clerk, as well, and that’s not likely to happen. If it did, the District Attorney General would be required again to designate a staff attorney for City Court. That’s an added public cost that would over-ride the mayor’s suggested savings.

Some other municipalities in Hamilton County whose judges exercise jurisdiction in state law for misdemeanors — including Signal Mountain, Soddy-Daisy, Red Bank, East Ridge and Colledgedale — have not yet established elected court clerks for their municipal courts. If their compliance is not grandfathered in under the reform act, that could leave the jurisdiction of their courts open to legal contest.

Lastly, Littlefield has made a legitimate case for consolidating as many urban services as possible with county government to improve tax fairness and efficiency. It would work against that goal to take City Court out of the combined county-city Courts Building, where it shares security, utilities and space, and stuff it in an inappropriate facility which is not designed for court purposes.

Why bother? The maxim in this case should be, if it’s fixed, don’t break it.

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fairmon said...

leave it to Littlefield to come up with a minimum savings idea that complicates things for some employees. It is not unlike the police cars debacle. The man has not a clue where the savings are or he is so compromised he can't address them. I hope the council will ask for detailed proof of savings and have the data independently verified should this proposal be seriously considered. This milk toast rubber stamp council scares me.

There is no mention of renovation cost to the proposed location. I assume it is significant. Is this another Farmer's Market deal? I would really like to hear the mayor's and council's explanation for the cost to tax payers from that chain of events.

February 5, 2011 at 1:43 p.m.
jpo3136 said...

Mayor Littlefield's last police related move, withdrawing critical patrol cars to a parking lot instead of keeping them immediately at hand for over a hundred officers, did not seem to save any money.

On the contrary, these moves appear to be promoting the breaking of current task organization. These are union busting moves that promote outsourcing.

Outsourcing is poor for government because it creates buyout/leaseback schemes that mask liabilities. Once hidden, it's hard for the people to get sound and stable audits of their assets. This allows politicians to claim whatever fictions about assets and liabilities. Maintaining observable, true, owner's equity is of great importance to us. It promotes audits and assessments the average person can understand.

Notice how the city's CAFR and CABR, budget documents that show proposed and recorded spending, specifically state that this past year the method for accounting for assets has been changed. That change in methodology alone created a multi-million dollar shift in reported assets.

It's budgetary hocus-pocus so that politicians can claim "balanced" budgets when, in fact and practice, they are nowhere near.

Look at how this year's "balanced" plan from Mayor Littlefield required Police to lose patrol cars even though the Police have a 47 million dollar a year budget. They're not out of cash.

Neither are these courts, are they?

Courts, too, can be outsourced, for profit. Most any government service can.

Take, for example, the costs of operating courts. Is one building really a savings over another? Compare that to using videoconferencing for some routine legal meetings. While not appropriate for litigation, creating a videoconferencing system for court-related negotiations would be an example refining the support for courts in a way that might save money. What will changing buildings save? Rent per square foot?

Given some of these other fiascoes, it looks more like grouping control is the preferred advantage the Mayor's office will seek.

Changing buildings for court only works as a cost saving measure if the same method is used that tallied up costs for revoking Police patrol cars: ignoring realistic cost assessments.

Security, searching people before they enter a court, transportation of files, duplicating currently shared resources, phone and telecom routines for coordinating court resources, parking, prisoner/witness/called persons staging and transportation (even if civil and routine): all are expenses which would have to be re-assessed when changing buildings.

I don't like these recent changes with the Police and the courts, under the disguise of cost saving. I don't believe those savings are there; and, I don't like the decisions the Mayor has been making on these matters overall.

Keep the courts where they are; and, give the Police back their patrol cars.

February 7, 2011 at 12:21 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

This is a set up for Metro. Leading opponents to Metro government have been satellite cities and county residents outside of Chattanooga's city limits.

End around them with court elimination, and get what you want.

Expect backlash. No one want Metro, besides those who stand to gain political power. Look at what nonsense has been put upon us with the backdoor deals in the last three Chattanooga Mayoral administrations. Do people not realize that the office is not for personal gain?

I don't think Mayor Littlefield is interested in tax fairness or efficiency. By flouting the existence of City court, he's negating a prime means of enforcing tax collections for the city. Those ordinances the city court enforces: a lot of those are about the payment of money.

Tax money.

Fines and taxes are collected as a result of court decisions all the time. In Mayor Littlefield's argument, outlined above, he's seeking to negate his power to argue for tax and fine collection while proving that the county's capacity to do so is established and strong. By deferring to the county and citing their "greatness", he'd flatter them while "borrowing" some of their services.

Two borrowings into that deal, and we've set a pattern for Metro.

A pattern we don't want.

More than just budget hocus-pocus, this may be the logistic setup for a power grab for Metro government. Voters have time and again rejected it. The last county and city deals resulted in crony appointments and exchanges. Look at the setup that's looming. It's for Metro.

Not only for Metro, but maybe also Metro, for profit through outsourcing, and for political gain for key individuals.

Keep the City Court where it is. Get the patrol cars out of the parking lot and assigned back to the police, as before.

Reject Metro.

February 7, 2011 at 12:38 a.m.
holdout said...

I heard a rumor that Ron Littlefield and Hosni Mubarak are going into business together running a consulting firm. Something about training for government leaders.

February 8, 2011 at 9:43 a.m.
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