Cottonwood weighs consolidation of city court system

Judges debate cost savings, feasibility

City Magistrate Douglas LaSota said he is worried about the quality of justice under consolidated court system amidst what he claims to be an increase in court filings in Fiscal Year 2018. (VVN/Kelcie Grega)

City Magistrate Douglas LaSota said he is worried about the quality of justice under consolidated court system amidst what he claims to be an increase in court filings in Fiscal Year 2018. (VVN/Kelcie Grega)

— Consolidation talks have been an echoing theme within the Upper Verde Valley from fire departments to school districts to centralizing city departments into one building.

Right now, chatter of possibly consolidating local courts is making its rounds in the region.

While court consolidation has been under discussion for several years, it has never been actively pursued. The city has been approached once again with this possibility amidst municipal budget planning.

“I know that it’s not a pleasant conversation to have but in terms of getting our budget in line, I think it’s an important conversation to have,” said Cottonwood Mayor Tim Elinski during a Cottonwood City Council work session Tuesday. “I think we owe it to ourselves and the community to talk about ways we can provide the same level of service for less money, thereby reducing our need to raise taxes.”

Consolidation talks have been resurrected because of uncertainty on how Clarkdale will move forward with its municipal court services.

“Currently, the Town of Clarkdale is exploring options for how to move forward with our Magistrate Court given our current magistrate’s contract expiration on May 31st and severe space constraints and lack of security features in our physical facilities.  We are in active discussion with the Verde Valley Justice Court to explore a shared services option with them for FY 2019, and are also exploring the costs of expanding our present facility if we choose to remain here.  Our council will be discussing those options at their March 27th council meeting,” said Clarkdale Town Manager Gayle Mabery.

Consolidation would be modeled after the Prescott Consolidated Justice/City Court.

In an email to the Verde Independent, Yavapai County District 3 Supervisor Randy Garrison said the consolidated system is currently working well in Prescott and hopes to follow the same model in the Verde Valley.

But some have raised concerns over cost savings and the overall implications of a consolidated court system.

Roles of the Courts

City Courts

Incorporated cities and towns have what is called a municipal court, or magistrate court. These courts have criminal jurisdiction over misdemeanor crimes and petty offenses that occur within city limits.

The municipal court judges also known as magistrates typically hear misdemeanor traffic cases like driving under the influence or hit-and-runs. They also hear violations of city ordinance codes and can issue orders of protection.

Magistrates do not handle civil lawsuits between citizens.

Justice Courts

Counties have justice courts presided by a justice of the peace. JPs are elected on four-year terms.

JPs typically handle civil lawsuits where the amount of the dispute is $10,000 or less. JPs also handle a range of civil and criminal traffic offenses and extreme DUIs.

Yavapai County has six justice court precincts. Verde Valley Justice Court handles Camp Verde, Clarkdale, Cottonwood, Jerome, Oak Creek, Cornville, Red Rock and Sedona.

Superior Courts

The superior courts handle general jurisdiction in the state. Judges hear cases that involve felony prosecutions and civil cases with a dispute of $10,000 or more.

Superior courts also handle probate matters, marriage dissolutions and annulments.

-- Source: azcourts.gov

‘Negative impact on court employees’

City Magistrate Douglas LaSota said he is worried about the quality of justice under consolidated court system amidst what he claims to be an increase in court filings in Fiscal Year 2018.

According to Cottonwood Municipal Court documents, Fiscal Year 2017 had a total of 2,394 court followings. As of February 2018, there are currently 621 filings. There is an anticipated total of 3,028 for Fiscal Year 2018.

LaSota said that while most of those cases don’t go to trial, they do go through multiple stages such as arraignments, contempt hearings, etc.

LaSota also claimed that there would be no cost savings in a consolidated court system.

“Consolidation can have a negative impact on court employees,” he said. “If court consolidation were to occur, it would be difficult and potentially costly.”

In a document packet to Council outlining points against consolidation, LaSota stated the city would have to pay 40 percent of the court administrator’s salary.

“The county can pay her whatever they want to and Cottonwood will have no veto power,” he stated in the packet.

LaSota also stated that several programs beneficial to Cottonwood and its residents would be destroyed and that the speed and quality of justice would be damaged as well as customer service.

LaSota said the reason why he thinks the consolidated court system in Prescott is not a viable model because they’re facing a different scenario in renting building space.

“It’s cost-effective to them because they’re getting charged dirt-cheap for rent,” LaSota said. “If you get a big court building to house Clarkdale, ourselves and the county … you’re looking at paying rent and we already own a building.”

‘Falsehoods and misrepresentations’

Yavapai County Justice of the Peace Bill Lundy said during the work session that LaSota’s claims have several falsehoods and misrepresentations.

“I’m not here to talk negatively or positively of Judge LaSota but his memo has several falsehoods and misrepresentations,” he said.

First, Lundy said there was no way of determining whether or not consolidation would have cost savings.

Addressing LaSota’s claim that the city would have to pay 40 percent of the court administrator salary, he said the amount the city would have to pay is still to be determined.

“He argues that the county can pay her whatever they want … I can assure you, the county doesn’t overpay for anything,” he said. “It’s going to be a reasonable salary.

In addressing the claim about bad customer service, Lundy said he has never heard his court has bad customer service.

“It won’t in the future if we decide to consolidate,” he said.

The way Lundy envisions a consolidated court system is not having city and county cases mixed together and that it would be more of a collocation rather than a consolidation.

“I don’t envision having city and county cases ... with different kinds of sentences here and there — I think that would be detrimental to the unit,” he said. “It would be two or three courts in one building but not mashing them all together.”

Council will explore possibility collocation or consolidation as continue to gather more information from the county.

-- Follow Kelcie Grega on Twitter @KelcieGrega

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