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Coasties Beat Back Judges

by Mark Scaramella, December 11, 2012

In the beginning there was the lie, the lie that judges have got to be lawyers. That lie got Mendocino County’s outlying justice courts shut down. Used to be you went to court in Covelo, Boonville, Point Arena, Laytonville, Ukiah, Hopland, Willits. In all those places the people who lived there elected the most honest guy in town to be the judge, the guy the people trusted to be fair.

Nobody complained, but all these courts were declared insufficient to the great task of justice, and soon a bunch of people with law degrees, several of them just out of the woods where they’d been running around naked smoking marijuana, became the judges in the little courts of Mendocino County.

There was some grumbling.

“Who the hell are these people?” the old timers wondered about the new judges. ”

But even with law-degreed hippies and strangers and straight-up dingbats sitting in judgement in Covelo and Boonville and Point Arena, at least the people of Mendocino County didn’t have to drive all day to Ukiah to get justice.

Then there was the second lie, the lie that for the sake of “efficiency” the justice courts would have to be closed. And they were closed.

The third lie was that new courthouses in Fort Bragg and Willits would still make justice convenient for the residents of Mendocino County’s main population centers. A new courthouse was erected in Willits, a structure so awful in every way from its squalid appearance to its leaking roof that it was soon closed, and everyone in Willits and Laytonville and Covelo had to go all the way to Ukiah where — surprise! — most of the County’s judges live.

Meanwhile, Coast residents were assured that a new Ten Mile Courthouse would save them the all-day roundtrip to Ukiah. That courthouse, like the new one in Willits, got built. And, like the courthouse in Willits, now the judges want to close it.

We’ll take an irony break here.

The old Ten Mile Courthouse, along with the Fort Bragg Library and the Piedmont Hotel, was burned down in 1987 in an arson-for-profit scheme carried out by some of Fort Bragg’s leading citizens, none of whom were prosecuted or even arrested. That’s not irony because it isn’t funny. What’s ironical is that the more judges we got in Mendocino County the more crime came with them, and they could say, “Look at all the crime. Look how busy we are. We need more judges.” What they didn’t say is, “We need more courts in the all the way to hell and gone communities,” and what they did is set about funneling everything within walking distance of their homes in Ukiah (on the Westside, of course) where they now want to build a brand new County Courthouse on Perkins Street, a County Courthouse that would contain only THEM, and contain only THEM in the monarchical splendor they seem to assume.

To make it seem like they need the new County Courthouse in Ukiah only for THEM, the eight judges and one magistrate want to close the only other courthouse left in Mendocino County — Ten Mile Court, Fort Bragg.

So, Fort Bragg built a new courthouse and a new library and a couple of shady characters with law degrees became judges of the Ten Mile Court. But big cases went to Ukiah anyway because, well, because that’s where they went. The real bad stuff that happened on the Mendocino Coast still went to Ukiah although everyone involved was from the Mendocino Coast and a perfectly secure courthouse sat in Fort Bragg, complete with a Superior Court judge and a jury box for twelve tried and true. Why not try a murder case there? Nope. Can’t do it. Gotta go to Ukiah.

You visit the County Courthouse and maybe half the courtrooms have something going on in them. And here are the stats you need to get the complete picture:

Start with the roughly $1 million budget shortfall the judges claim. Then assume that each of our nine judges gets a total of about $250k from the taxpayers each year ($186k salary, plus generous benefits). Then look at our neighbor, Lake County. Lake County has five judges. That means Lake County is getting

along just fine with four fewer judges for a comparable number of cases. Four times $250k = $1 million. Problem solved!

Or look at it another way: Say they need to save $500k. Nine judges at $250k each. If they took salary and benefit cuts to the tune of $50k each, that would save $450k right there and still leave the judges with $200k, $150k salary and $50k per year in benefits.

Back to lie number quatro.

It’s still underway, but the nut of it is that the eight judges of the Mendocino County Superior Court plus that woman called a court commissioner/magistrate, all of them paid a lot of public money to serve the public, suddenly announced that “budget shortfalls” meant a lot of cutbacks at Ten Mile Court and, probably, its eventual demise.

The Coast rose up. No way, the people said in one loud voice, so loud the eight judges and the court commissioner in Ukiah heard the tumult clear over the Coast Range mountains. And what they heard scared them. Coasties were talking recall, recall of all eight of them and the magistrate, too.

Very soon, presiding judge of the Mendocino County Superior Court, Richard Henderson, was standing before an overflow crowd in Fort Bragg’s Town Hall (where the old court and the library stood before the crooks got away with burning them down) to announce that the judges had withdrawn their plan to make major cuts in the operation of Fort Bragg’s Ten Mile Court.

Kind of. Maybe. For now anyway.

After introducing judges Reimenschneider, Brennan, Behnke, Mayfield, Nadel and Anne Moorman, Judge Henderson said that Judge Nelson was in San Diego and Magistrate Basner was also among the missing.

Judge Henderson, all smiles and little jokes about driving over the mountains in the rain like the judges were some kind of latter day Donner Party, began: “We knew from the beginning that [the proposed cuts] would impose some hardship on the people who live on the coast. We knew that the decision would be unpopular.”

If they knew that, one might ask, why didn’t they hold a hearing to discuss it before they did it? Isn’t that the way judges are supposed to operate? Listen to all sides, then decide?

“If you want to know how we make decisions in the court,” Henderson explained, “the presiding judge by statute or court rule has the authority to make decisions, historically, within the court. Because we have a comfortable [our emphasis] number of judges, we all meet together and discuss decisions, and we always try to reach a consensus decision. So if you are dissatisfied with something, a decision that the judges have made, you can begin with the point that it is something that all the judges have discussed, all those present, they tried to reach the best possible resolution.”

“A comfortable number of judges” might well be part of the court’s budget problem —but Henderson disputed that later.

Apparently all the judges agreed that the way they make decisions is to run something unpopular out there, then retreat and regroup if the slobs object. The slobs did object, big time. And the judges knew that these slobs contain many experienced and resourceful troublemakers — buttressed by all top law enforcement officials in the County — fully willing and capable of creating big trouble for the Mendocino County Superior Court.

Guilty — unless there’s a public outcry?

Henderson softened up the assembled Coast rabble by explaining the court’s budget problems — “There is some information that we want to put out to all of you before you address your issues with us.”

“None of the judges have ever expressed any intention of closing the coastal court,” insisted Henderson, even though nobody we know has ever claimed that was their intention. “There has never been a proposal to close this court. We have been forced to make budget cuts and reductions throughout the entire court for financial reasons.”

Then Henderson launched into the “financial reasons” which conveniently put most of the blame on the state legislature and the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts which set the budget and allocated it to the counties, going on at length with a fourth-grade civics lesson about the branches of government and the way the court’s budget gets from Sacramento to Mendo.

“But our court is not involved directly in the discussions that result in the amount of money that we get in Mendocino County,” Henderson said.

“Then when we get that amount of money and it is up to the eight judges [apparently not including the “magistrate,” a kind of jv judge] and the court executive officer to set a budget for the court. … This year our allocation is $5.6 million for 2012-2013. … We do get additional money from grants and miscellaneous sources which might be 5-10% percent of our budget. But approximately 90% comes from the single allotment from the state. And that’s where the problem is.

“In 2008-2009 we got about $8.5 million from the state. It’s been decreasing ever since. Last year our budget was $6.2 million. This year is $5.6 million. That’s a 9% drop from last year. And next year it’s going to be  $4.5 million. So we’re looking at another reduction of 20% between this year and next year. So since 2008 our budget has been reduced by 46.9%.

“Maybe you thought we had too much money to begin with,” added Henderson, stating the obvious, “and that’s fine. But these are the budget reductions that we are working with from year to year. That’s the nature of the problems we are faced with.”

Henderson said that most of their budget, about 81%, goes to personnel and therefore to save any real money, they have to cut personnel. “Since 2008 we have lost a total of 23 people. Our objective has been to not reduce services in court. So we cut people from administration and we cut people with higher salaries” — an assistant court executive officer, a human resources manager, the chief fiscal officer, plus an administrative technician and human resources technician. They have also cut probate investigators for guardianships and conservatorships and the equivalent of 2.5 court recorders.

“We have been cutting where we can,” insisted Henderson. “And in the last five or six years we have eliminated one court manager and ten court clerk positions, two of those were from Ten Mile and eight were from Ukiah. So we went from almost 79 people in 2008 to about 55 now. This year we have eliminated or lost more positions — a guardianship investigator, an auditor, family law mediator, human resources manager, legal secretary, jury services coordinator… which totaled almost $500,000 in additional cuts.”

Henderson then addressed some of the complaints the judges received after their initial Ten Mile cutbacks were announced.

“We had some interesting things in the materials we received,” said Henderson. “You have heard that there is a proposal to build a new courthouse. That’s true. First of all, that is a decision made by the state. They looked at all the existing courthouses in the state and figured out which ones were in the worst condition for one reason or another and ours is right up there on the top. This is not something that we started although we are glad that it’s happening. This is something that the state has done and the construction funds will come from the state. So whether the courthouse goes in or it doesn’t go in, it will not affect our budget at all. In any event, the new courthouse is not supposed to be finished until 2016. It is not something that will affect what we are doing here now. There is no plan whatsoever to put enough courtrooms in the new courthouse to absorb services from Ten Mile. From the very beginning all the documents we have reflect or acknowledge the need to retain the courthouse in Ten Mile as separate from what we do in Ukiah. There is no hidden plan. If there is, they kept it pretty well hidden from the three judges on the committee.”

Compartmentalization of funds is a neat way waste it. Oh, these funds here? They’re earmarked by the state. We can’t use it for operations. (They can, of course, but they just don’t want to and they haven’t made any requests to re-allocate any of it.)

Then Henderson addressed the complaint that there are too many judges who are paid too much.

“The next suggestion is why did we go out and hire two judges [Nadel and Reimenschneider were recently appointed to fill two vacancies] when we are experiencing all these problems? The number of judges we have in each court is set by the state legislature, by state law. So it’s not something we do. The Legislature would have to change the law reducing the number of judges if in fact they wanted to do that. The salaries paid to the judges are also set by state law. They are paid by the state separate from any budget over which we have control, separate from any budget that serves the operation of the court. So again that is an issue that has no affect whatsoever on the budget problems we have today.”

Convenient, isn’t it? The judges’ budget is “separate” from the rest of the budget.

“In fact, while those two positions were vacant for about a year and a half, the Judicial Council always assigned one or two judges to come here and fill those vacancies. So even when we didn’t have two elected judges here we still have judges who were assigned to come in and assist. For instance, Judge Luther came in a number of times. There are a couple of other retired judges living in Mendocino. They were here. This is something that will not and does not contribute to the budget problem and will not contribute to the resolution of the problem.”

Right. Cutting the judges just leads to more judges, even though Henderson himself said they had a “comfortable number of judges.” We’re talking judicial Whack-A-Mole, cut down two over here and three more pop up over there. They just can’t save any money by cutting themselves, only court services and staff. Taken to its logical conclusion, we could end up with nine judges in a new eyesore courthouse on Perkins Street, Ukiah, and no support staff at all.

It’s separate, you see. We are separate and off-limits.

After explaining that the court’s recent cash flow problem has been relieved by small amounts of money received from the state a week earlier, Henderson added, “We are trying to figure out what we as a court, and what we as a community can do to solve the problem.”

Then Henderson made the announcement that everyone in the room had come to hear: an eleventh hour stay of execution.

“When we made the decision to limit services in Ten Mile we were aware of the problems you all have in driving back and forth between Ukiah and Fort Bragg. We do it sometimes. Most of us have lived in the county a long time and we are aware of those problems. But I have to tell you, based on the storm of protest from individual citizens, from lawyers who practice before the court, from law enforcement, the District Attorney’s office, the mayor, the City Council, the Board of Supervisors, we think we stubbed our toe in this decision.”

The room erupted in applause.

“So we have listened to you,” Henderson continued. “I received about 200 emails myself. I tried to read every single one of them. I’m still working on that. I received a number of individual letters. I received letters from most of the public officials here tonight. Those brought to our attention a problem we knew existed but we maybe didn’t realize how serious they were.”

All they had to do was ask.

“Because of what you people [sic] have told us, I can tell you today that we will not reduce court services in Ten Mile as planned.”

More applause.

“I hope you heard the last two words: ‘as planned’,” Henderson hedged. “But we have no plans at all to reduce Ten Mile court services at this time. The main reason is the strength and breadth of the objections we got from all of you. Judges are elected officials but we also have responsibility to run the courts and to serve the community. We stubbed our toe on this one. We are listening to your input. We are going to try to work out the problem. I don’t know how we are going to do it yet. I don’t want to mislead you; we are still faced with budget reductions of around $1 million and we are going to figure out how to do that.”

Henderson then gave a five minute lecture on how the budget cycle works, concluding, “We have no indication that next year’s budget will be better. It may be. This Prop 30 that recently passed, there was no proposal that the courts would get any money out of that proposition. So I cannot say that that’s going to help.”

Some of the Prop 30 money will go to “law enforcement” (not specifically the court system), but most of it is supposed to fund public education. However, lots of people think that some prior funding that was going to the public schools will be re-allocated after the Prop 30 money comes in.

“I think it’s clear that the notice and this meeting for all of you has been a pretty painful process until I was able to tell you whatever the decision has been [i.e., withdrawn; never mind]. I think there’s some positive from it. I’ve never seen so many citizens concerned about the court system before. Usually we only hear from law enforcement and lawyers when we make our decisions because our changes affect them and their scheduling and things like that. It’s very good that we see the concern that you have. I think we want to work with your Save Our Coast Court group and talk and get the message to the legislature and the governor’s office of how the budget is going to affect this court in Mendocino County and in the coastal area. This is going on all over the state. Almost all of the courts are reducing court services, closing courtrooms and closing branch courts. It is not isolated in Mendocino County. So I ask that you work independently with the legislators and with the Save Our Court group.”

Henderson then read the contact information for Senator Noreen Evans and her staff including Jeff Tyrell former chair of the Mendocino Democratic Central Committee. And for Wes Chesbro and his staff including Ruth Valenzuela, former political intern. Both Tyrell and Valenzuela were in the audience.

“We need to keep the legislators involved,” said Henderson. “When they proposed to cut the parks everyone got upset and called and something got done. We will work on it and we want to work with all of you like that.”

If anyone thinks that an appeal to Evans and Chesbro will solve the court’s budget problems, we’ve got a fancy new bypass in Willits we’d like to sell them.

Coast attorney Carter Sears pointed out to the judges that it takes longer to get from Fort Bragg to Ukiah than it takes to get from Ukiah to Santa Rosa and the road is worse to Fort Bragg. He also said that it seemed to him that the now-withdrawn proposal was an attempt to solve the whole budget problem for this year with cuts in Fort Bragg, adding that there’s still a lot more capacity for cuts in Ukiah than in the much smaller Fort Bragg court which Sears said was “already functioning at its bare minimum level.”

Sears also objected to the amount of savings that the judges initially claimed to be necessary in their announcement, saying it was too high and urging them to make sure the amount they need to save is correct, not an exaggerated figure.

“About 16% of the cases are filed in Fort Bragg although some of them are transferred to Ukiah later,” Sears noted. “The clerks in Fort Bragg are handling more cases per person than the clerks in Ukiah by a factor of two or three.”

Fort Bragg Mayor Dave Turner opened with a little joke about how involved Coast residents occasionally get: “You can see what we have to put up with almost any given Monday night,” said Turner, gesturing to the audience with a smile. Then Turner got down to business. “The lost police time [that the cuts would produce due to having to go to Ukiah on criminal cases] would cost about $180,000,” said Turner, which means they would have to have more cops on the payroll to compensate for those spending time in Ukiah. “The city’s public safety cost would exceed your savings. And the streets would be less safe. And to do this witnesses have to appear in Ukiah and it would be harder to get witnesses to do that which would make it harder to get convictions. I can assure you that Ukiah citizens would be shocked beyond belief if they got a single jury summons for Fort Bragg.”

Supervisor Dan Hamburg said the last time he saw this big a turnout of Coast people for anything was at the off-shore oil hearings back in the 80s, adding, “We are good at people coming together and figuring things out in Mendocino County.”

No we’re not. Name one thing we “came together” on and figured out.

However, Hamburg was right to say that “the Coast is the goose that lays the golden egg for Mendocino County. So much of our revenue comes from here. So much of what we treasure about Mendocino County comes from our coast. And yet so often the coast gets the short end of the stick. It’s true. The animal shelter. Homeless services. Mental health services. Planning and Building department… The good part is that the judges and the presiding judge heard you, and heard us. And they backed off from this proposal. And now the challenge before us is to solidify the court going forward. Everyone who deals with the court needs a court here on the coast. Not just for the Fort Bragg police, but the Sheriff, the DA, Park Rangers, Fish and Game… I thank the judges for seeing the error of their ways.”

District Attorney David Eyster thanked the judges as “honorable people doing the right thing. They didn’t realize the power that is the coast. You people [in the audience] did this and I appreciate that. Even Chief Dewey from Ukiah opposed this proposal even though it didn’t really affect him.”

Sheriff Allman took the opportunity to say a few words, first summarizing the history of court closures in all the other outlying areas of the County, then suggesting that the County try to implement video arraignments from Fort Bragg an idea that’s been around for decades but has never been seriously pursued because the judges have always gotten in the way. “But we can’t do it without defense attorneys approval,” Allman said, adding a second obstacle but not an obstacle the judges couldn’t surmount.

Then Allman pulled out all his rhetorical stops. “We live in a Great Democracy,” he said. “There are no ax handles out in front of the court. No pitchforks. We are In Agreement. And that’s the way Democracy Works and thanks for coming out here.”

(We think we’re about five years away from the pitchfork-and-ax handle stage, but it’s coming.)

No nonsense Fort Bragg Police Chief Scott Mayberry didn’t bother spending much time disputing a proposal that had already been withdrawn, and simply thanked everyone for resisting the proposed cuts.

Willits Police Chief Jerry Gonzales was impressed by the Fort Bragg turnout: “We [in Willits] went quietly,” said Gonzales, referring to a couple of years ago when they closed the Willits courthouse. “I’m glad to see that the coast is not going to go quietly into the dark like we did. Even a partial Court closure would cripple Fort Bragg. It’s already difficult to send officers to court in Ukiah from Willits. From Fort Bragg it would be much worse. Had I known what it would be like when they proposed closing the Willits courthouse I would have been out there complaining about it more — and I would have called you guys for tips on how to do it.”

Several more locals stepped up to say how important the Ten Mile Court is and how they’re glad the decision has been tabled and how they look forward to working on better plans that don’t cut Fort Bragg.

Retired Ten Mile Court Judge Jonathan Lehan said that it would be “very wrong” to eliminate jury trials in Fort Bragg. He recounted the late Ten Mile Judge Robert Heeb’s role in bringing various court functions to Fort Bragg — a district attorney office, a probation office, and a public defender. “It would be a shame to start cutting into those things that took so much work to put in place,” said Lehan. “The Ukiah Courthouse is ill-equipped to handle all the additional activity that would result from major cuts in Fort Bragg. It would be a better use of resources to expand the Fort Bragg court and take some of the load off of Ukiah. Put the burden on the judges who should often be sitting in Fort Bragg full-time.”

Henderson wrapped up. “It’s ironic the way this started out. We sent a notice out. We made a decision. It brought everybody out. But I think it’s been a positive experience for everybody. You have understood our problems. We understand the repercussions of what our decisions are on local communities. So we thank you all.”

Ironic? Sounds plain-old bass-ackwards to us. If the judges had simply held a hearing and consulted with law enforcement and coastal officials first they wouldn’t have put everyone to all this trouble and general anxiety.

“We ask you not to lose that energy you have here tonight. Let’s try to work with the legislative representatives who are here, to work with the city councils, the Board of Supervisors, to work with the Save Our Coast Court group. And get to the legislators, because those people really control the money that eventually comes to this Court. Let’s try to get those people to realize some of the problems that their decisions cause. So that we can all of us try to develop plans to keep the courts that we all deserve. We as judges will do our best to try to consider all your needs as we consider the various judicial services, the court related services, that are provided in the county.”

Translation: We don’t really care what gets cut to meet the current court budget — but you can’t cut us and you can’t cut our new courthouse.

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