Judging the city’s needs

The Watertown City Court wraps up one morning in 2016. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — The state court administration is urging the governor to veto home rule legislation that would reduce the number of City Court judges to one full-time and a part-time judge.

In an Aug. 20 letter, Marc C. Bloustein, legislative counsel for the state Office of Court Administration, wrote that the court administration “strongly” opposes the home rule legislation that was approved by both the state Senate and Assembly this summer.

The home rule legislation is designed to resolve the issue of reducing the number of full-time City Court judges and avoid a $3.1 million court expansion that was pushed by the Office of Court Administration.

Last spring, city officials requested that state Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, and Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, introduce the legislation, contending that the city cannot afford the project and does not need a second courtroom in City Hall.

In his letter, Mr. Bloustein wrote to Elizabeth Garvey, the governor’s special counsel and senior advisor, recommending that the governor veto the legislation.

Richard Azzopardi, a senior advisor to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, said the legislation remains under review by the governor.

It was unclear Wednesday whether the state Legislature has delivered the bill to the governor for him to sign.

The legislation would revert to a 2013 law that created the second full-time City Court judge. A 1973 state law requires that judges have their own courtrooms.

“The present measure would undo the 2013 statute for no reason related to the needs of the court and the community it serves,” Mr. Bloustein wrote, “other than having a second full-time judge financially burdens the city of Watertown by requiring that it expands its court facilities.”

But Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith said that he did not know if the state court administration advocated that the governor veto the legislation.

Last month, the City Council approved a resolution to send a letter to the governor urging him to sign it. Mayor Smith has not heard anything about the issue since then.

On Wednesday, he reiterated that city taxpayers cannot afford the court improvements, saying that Mr. Bloustein doesn’t pay city taxes.

“It’s all a matter of being able to afford it,” he said. “The city of Watertown taxpayers can’t afford his wishes.”

The mayor also pointed out that the legislation received bipartisan support in the state Senate and Assembly.

The second courtroom has been a bone of contention for Mayor Smith and the City Council, who contend that it’s not needed. Stopping the project and reducing the number of City Court judges was a campaign issue for Mayor Smith last fall.

But the second full-time judge is needed for an increase in usage by adding a special drug and opioid court and plans for creating a new veterans’ court, Mr. Bloustein wrote.

The city will still need to proceed with major court renovations that “are woefully inadequate” to make the court facilities compliant with the American with Disabilities Act, he wrote. The city is responsible for the cost of the renovations, which include a security upgrade, jury room, restrooms and other courtroom improvements.

Residents also would lose their right to elect a second full-time judge because part-time judges are appointed positions, Mr. Bloustein wrote.

The home rule legislation also contains an error, he wrote. Part-time judges are now paid an annual salary of $46,800, not the $27,200 that’s mentioned in the bill.

Judge James P. Murphy, who serves as administrative judge for the Fifth Judicial District, has been adamant that the second courtroom is needed and that the city should proceed with the project.

Judge Murphy submitted a report to the court administration outlining the history of the issues with Watertown and why the project needs to go forward, he said.

He was aware of the letter and its contents, he said.

Mayor Smith has wanted the home rule legislation passed now because City Court Judge Eugene R. Renzi is likely to vacate the city judgeship in January. He is running for Jefferson County Surrogate Court judge.

Johnson Newspaper Corp. statehouse reporter Kate Lisa contributed to this story.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(1) comment

Empathy

The issue here is justice. Is mayor Smith saying that he is willing to forgo justice? We in this community have the right to equal justice which includes timely resolution to court cases, not unending back logs that cost community members a lot of money for extended legal involvements. All of the courts in our County have overload problems. When some people encouraged the expansion of Ft. Drum, the local officials conveniently down played the expenses of the increase in population and problems that the expansion were guaranteed to bring into our communities.

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