COLLEGE PLACE — The City Council Monday moved to close the city’s Municipal Court and contract its cases to Walla Walla County District Court.
Despite arguments against the action by Municipal Judge Richard Wernette, council members voted 7-0 for the consolidation. The changeover will occur at the start of next year.
The interlocal agreement to have district court take over the city’s caseload still needs to be approved by the Walla Walla County commissioners and the Walla Walla City Council. Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the agreement at their Dec. 16 meeting and the Walla Walla City Council will vote on it at its Dec. 18 meeting.
At Monday’s meeting, City Administrator Pat Reay recapped arguments in favor of closing the city court, saying the move will eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies in delivery of court services.
“This addresses a strategic goal the City Council has adopted to eliminate inefficiencies and unnecessary redundancies in the delivery of public services,” he said.
Reay argued that most municipalities in Washington state are trending toward consolidation. Under the proposed agreement, the city would still retain its prosecutor and public defender, he said, and the cost to file cases with district court would be less, “about $50 a filing and our cost is about $100 a filing,” he said.
Apart from the financial advantage, Reay said a bigger issue was risk avoidance that came with the city “being a part-time court versus entering into an agreement with a full-time provider that does this day-in, day-out rather than (with a) part-time staff.”
The consolidation would also allow the city to reallocate support staff “to the function and purpose that they were originally hired for,” Reay said. “That’s really the crux of the conversation.”
Council member Loren Peterson noted “there really is no cost savings in this for the city. The budget is still at ($150,000), I see expenses are still at ($135,000), so dollars are not necessarily driving this decision?”
“I don’t believe the sole driver is a financial aspect,” Reay replied. “I think there is a proficiency and efficiency (aspect) that really drives this. And really the burden of court functions on other staff resources ...”
In his remarks to the council, Wernette argued that the local court serves local needs and that the change would prove more costly to the city than what it spends now on operating its own court.
Wernette said the city’s estimate of costs is “generously low” and that the salaries for judges would be higher as opposed to his salary, which is controlled by the city. Along with losing control of salaries, the city would be losing control over the entire judicial process.
“So the question really is, do you really want to have the ability to control the administration of justice ... or do you want to give it to somebody else?”
Wernette said his budget in 2013 was about $103,000 a year while the city’s 2014 budget calls for an expenditure of $150,000 for fees to Walla Walla District Court. “You would be paying close to 50 percent more next year to have somebody else perform these services that College Place has been doing for decades effectively, not only performance-wise but cost-wise. So what are getting for those extra $50,000? Well, you’re getting somebody else to make those decisions for you ...”
He also said in his 11 years as the Municipal Court judge, liability has never been an issue.
“If there’s a liability issue, what are the claims that have been made against the city for the last 11 years that I know about? Because that’s been my tenure, because I don’t know of any,” he said.
However, at the end of the discussion, council members voted to support the motion made by council member William Jenkins to go ahead with consolidation. Wernette said afterward the move was a loss to residents.
“You know the court belongs to the residents of College Place. It doesn’t belong to me or the city manager. It belongs to the people of College Place. They have lost that court tonight,” he said.
Andy Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8318.