Possible College Place court merger a case of cost vs. local control

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COLLEGE PLACE — A proposal to merge the city’s Municipal Court with Walla Walla County District Court produced divided opinions Monday.

City Council members heard arguments on both sides of the issue from City Administrator Pat Reay and Richard Wernette, the city’s Municipal Court judge.

No immediate action was taken and Reay said more material will be presented to the Council at a later date.

Reay said the city has been working with county commissioners, the county Prosecutor’s Office and the city of Walla Walla to develop an agreement to consolidate the city’s court with county District Court at the start of next year.

Municipal Court, Reay said in a memo to the Council, is a part-time court “and, by its very nature, (is) the source of considerable liability exposure to the city.” Staff lack the proficiency and efficiency of a full-time court staff and court operations place a burden on other city departments to support its activities.

But Wernette said consolidation would sacrifice local control and independence.

“This is really a step backward,” he told Council members.

Since becoming Municipal Court judge in 2003, Wernette said, “I’ve really prided myself in adopting the College Place culture, and that is being courteous, friendly, polite and providing service to our citizens and anybody who comes before the court and taking that small town hospitality and transferring it into the court.

“When you get into a larger entity, like Walla Walla (County) District Court, you can’t help but lose some of that self-identity of what it means to live in College Place,” he said.

Wernette said that as Municipal Court judge he made public safety and accountability through probation enforcement his two top priorities. On domestic violence assaults, he said he is the only judge in the county to have a policy of no release until he personally meets with the defendant.

“People don’t get out of jail until I personally see them,” Wernette said.

Another example of local policymaking is stiffer enforcement of penalties for people who are repeat offenders for driving on suspended licenses. While in other jurisdictions there is no risk of jail for chronic driving while suspended, Wernette said, in College Place he can enforce the sentence with a jail term if necessary.

That is “a local policy that is locally determined and is locally enforced,” he said.

Reay, however, said that the city needs to look at the long-term issues.

“Judge Wernette will probably not be the municipal judge in perpetuity,” he said. “So as we look at the service we are providing, you have to look at all aspects of that service ... You have to look at other the impacts, which include financial liability, safety of our staff (and) turnover of our staff.”

The resources District Court offers with its full-time staff are a considerable advantage over the part-time College Place court and its personnel, Reay said.

“This is a law and justice service that is better served by the District Court,” he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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