Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Judge criticizes court consolidation effort

An effort to explore the consolidation of the local 29th District Court with another municipality by members of the Wayne City Council has drawn harsh criticism from retiring Judge Laura Mack.
A resolution directing the city administration to “engage with other local communities regarding the potential for court consolidation as soon as practicable” was adopted at the Feb. 4 meeting with Councilman Anthony Miller casting the only dissenting vote. The resolution also directs the administration to determine, with the assistance of Plante Moran, the fiscal impact of the consolidation on the city general fund budget.
The results of the study are to be reported to the council and the public as soon as “practicable.”

Miller repeatedly raised numerous questions about the proposed consolidation during the extensive discussion.
City Manager Lisa Nocerini introduced the resolution for consideration noting that it had been prepared at the request of “several council members, we just did as directed.”
Miller was adamant in his objections to the measure and repeatedly asked that the resolution not be sent to the state officials but that the study include the financial impact of any such merger on residents and first be considered by the council.
“You're putting the cart before the horse,” Miller told the council. “We need to do our own exploration. We're sending a resolution when we haven't done a cost analysis.”
Mayor John Rhaesa explained that the resolution was an effort to get help from the state regarding the feasibility of a merger and that all information gathered would be provided to the council members and the public before action was taken. He insisted that “it is time to act” and referred council members to an 2013 study of the court.
Miller pointedly asked if discussions with other communities had taken place about the consolidation by the city during the past three months. Rhaesa denied that any such talks or negotiations had taken place.
Mack, in a five-page letter, called Rhaesa's answer, “at best misleading and at worst, false.” 
Mack said that she had received a call from a judge at the Romulus 34th District Court on Feb. 3, the day before the council meeting, advising her that Romulus Mayor LeRoy Burcroff had been approached about consolidating the two courts.
She said that statements in the resolution and at the meeting were incorrect. “Some were false, some were misleading and others appeared to reveal a basic lack of understanding about the Court.”   
Mack also disputed claims that the number of full-time personnel in the court has increased from five in 2011 to 10 currently. “I am confused by that statement, because the court currently has eight full-time employees and 2.25 of those eight positions are funded by grants at no cost to the city.”
Rhaesa said at the meeting that Mack was to have prepared three bullet points for discussion with state officials regarding a consolidation but that she had failed to do so forcing the city to take action regarding the court.
Mack also disputed this remark stating that this was discussed in a meeting last year with state officials but was never specifically assigned to any one individual. She said she did as she agreed at the meeting and spoke to the judges at the 18th District Court in Westland and reported her findings to Rhaesa by telephone. “I believed that the city would follow up within a few weeks. That never happened,” she said.
Mack said she believes the effort at consolidation was a reaction to the proposed court budget for the coming fiscal year. 
Nocerini was openly critical of the proposed court budget during discussion of the resolution at the meeting.
 “This council's duty is fiduciary and fiscal responsibility,” she said. “We are already getting pushback. The court budget has gone from $772,000 to a proposed $941,000 for the 20-21 year. That is $167,000 more for personnel. I don't have $167,000 to give to my police department, my fire department, the DPW,” she said. She added that she has also been informed the court building needs a new furnace and a roof. Council members agreed that many repairs are needed to bring the court up to acceptable standards. “It is dysfunctional. It isn't fair to the employees,” Nocerini said.
Mack agreed that the court building does “have problems” She said it was built in 1951 and security was not considered and it now needs a new furnace and carpeting. She said there have been problems with the flat roof, but that she does not believe the building needs a new roof at this time.
“The current building, although not ideal, has worked and can continue to work with adequate security,” Mack said.
She also criticized Rhaesa's referencing the 8-year-old study. She said the most recent Judicial Resource Report indicates that Wayne needs .7 of a judge. “This does not include most of the time it takes to administer the treatment court, truancy program, eviction diversion program, juvenile jurisdiction and the teen court at Wayne Memorial High School.”
Mack said that she would support a court consolidation only if such a move would meet the needs of the community.
“Any consolidation should also carefully consider all of the costs, the impact on the police department and citizens of Wayne. Without careful planning, a consolidation could result in the court costing more to the city than it does now. Keep in mind that the judge's salary is completely borne by the State of Michigan. 
“It would be reckless to haphazardly eliminate this judgeship, deny the citizens their right to vote for their own judge and endanger valuable outreach program,” Mack said.
The approved resolution from the city was delivered to State Rep. Kevin Coleman in Lansing and will also be sent to State Sen. Dayna Polehanki and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in an effort to “get answers” about the possibility of a consolidation of  court jurisdictions with a neighboring court according to Rhaesa.