Want to buy a courthouse?

Posted on August 14, 2012


August 14, 2012
Dear Members and Others,

On July 20th, the Fresno Bee reported that the AOC had sent a letter to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors offering to sell back to the county at “market value” the Clovis courthouse. This is just one of a number of courthouses slated for closure because the Fresno County Superior Court doesn’t have the funds to keep it open.

Here’s the problem: some years back the county deeded this same courthouse to the AOC free of charge. In light of this creative way to apparently raise funds for the judicial branch, the Alliance issued the following statement:

In the category of “you can’t make this stuff up” comes the following: after bleeding local courts of valuable resources by wasting over a half billion dollars on a failed computer system, the AOC now wants our financially strapped counties to buy back courthouses that have been forced to close due to lack of funds. These are the exact courthouses the counties deeded over to the AOC for as little as one dollar several years ago.

The Alliance points to the Fresno County courthouse in Clovis as exhibit “A” in the never ending revelations of misplaced priorities, bureaucrats run amok and the dismissive attitude toward our local courts and the communities we serve.

The SEC report makes mention on page 156 of an analysis prepared by Pegasus Holdings, Inc., concerning the AOC Office of Court Construction and Management. The AOC’s foot dragging on the release of that report must end now. Judges, legislators, the Governor and the public have a right to know just how the OCCM measures up.

In the wake of the SEC report, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee should demand an audit of the OCCM. Millions, if not billions, of public dollars are on the line. Past history tells us that without legislative intervention our branch leaders will forge ahead, burning precious public funds. What is needed is an adult in the room — the state auditor who exposed the wasteful spending on CCMS — to audit the massive expenditure of public monies on court construction and hold the AOC to account for its operations.
As always, we will keep you apprised of further developments.
Directors, Alliance of California Judges

 Video hoped to ease Fresno County court closures

County plans to use video-conferencing.

By Kurtis Alexander – The Fresno Bee

Friday, Jul. 20, 2012 | 11:22 PM

After weeks of fielding criticism for plans to close seven courthouses, Fresno County’s presiding judge offered a small concession this week.

Superior Court Judge Gary Hoff says many of those inconvenienced by having to take their court business elsewhere will have the option of staying put and contacting the court through video-conferencing.

In coming months, the court plans to link residents in at least two yet-to-be-determined rural sites with judges in Fresno courtrooms via computer network, initially for traffic and truancy cases.

“If this is successful,” Hoff said, “we could expand the program, which would mitigate some of the issues the cities in the outlying areas have raised.”

But for some of those affected, Hoff’s plan appears to be too little, too late. City and county leaders who have criticized the court closures as limiting access to justice say video-conferencing may be better than closing a courthouse, but it’s no substitute.

Critics are stepping up their protest. The county this week told state court officials that it no longer wants to pay full price for what the state bills counties for court services. Mayors in 14 Fresno County cities have recently signed a letter of dissent. And the city of Mendota is sending its gripes straight to the governor.

Unless the protest bears fruit, though, courthouses in Coalinga, Firebaugh, Reedley, Sanger and Selma will close July 30. The Clovis and Kingsburg courthouses will follow suit Aug. 6.

The closures, which are the result of state funding cuts, mean all court matters will be handled in the city of Fresno — traffic, civil, family law, probate and criminal cases.

“It’s like 40 miles to the court,” Mendota Mayor Robert Silva said. “That’s a major problem. People in our particular area, if they’re working, they’ll have to take the entire day off.”

Council members in other cities have said the same, including in Coalinga, where residents will have to travel some 70 miles to get to a courtroom.

Many residents of these rural cities, home to some of the Valley’s poorest neighborhoods, don’t have cars.

County officials have been critical of the courtroom closures since they were announced in May. But officials waded deeper into the debate this week after receiving a letter, which they called inappropriate, from the California Administrative Office of the Courts.

The state office has asked the county whether it wants to buy the Clovis Courthouse after it closes — at “market value.” The problem for the county is that it originally owned some of the courthouses, including Clovis, and transferred them to the state for free.

“So, you can buy your buildings back, and we’re shutting your courthouses down. How is this good?” county Supervisor Debbie Poochigian said. “They should give the buildings back to us, and what we choose to do with them, that’s up to us.”

A response by the county to the Office of the Courts says that court facilities in Reedley, Firebaugh and Clovis should revert back to county ownership under the same terms in which they were deeded to the state. (County officials have not said what they would do with the buildings.)

The county’s letter to the Office of the Courts also asks that the county’s roughly $13 million annual bill for state court operations be reduced. Since the state took over court financing in the late 1990s, counties have been billed for a share of the court costs.

The fee “was predicated with the understanding that there would be a certain level of service to the unincorporated communities. That’s no longer the case,” County Administrative Officer John Navarrette said.

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