While campaigning last year for the position of Watertown mayor, Jeffrey M. Smith declared his intention to push back against state authorities who insist the city must construct another courtroom.
He said the process followed in deciding that Watertown needed a second full-time judge wasn’t proper. City officials should have been consulted on the matter, but they weren’t. He believes the city court system worked well the way it was.
A state law passed in 2013 declares Watertown must have two full-time judges. And a 1973 state law requires all full-time judges to have their own courtrooms.
Watertown officials have argued over creating a second courtroom for more than six years. The latest estimate for the project is $3.1 million.
Now that Mr. Smith has been in office for a nearly half a year, he’s found some allies for his cause. State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, have introduced a home rule bill in their respective chambers of the state Legislature. This would allow the city to return to having one full-time judge and one part-time judge.
City Court Judge Eugene R. Renzi, who has served full time in this capacity for eight years, is the only candidate running for Jefferson County Surrogate Court judge this year.
He will succeed Surrogate Judge Peter A. Schwerzmann, who’s retiring after serving since 1991.
In vacating his position, Judge Renzi would leave Judge Anthony M. Neddo as the city’s only full-time judge. If the home rule legislation is passed into law, Mr. Smith said the city would be in compliance.
Judge James P. Murphy, who serves as administrative judge for the Fifth Judicial District, has voiced his opposition to Mr. Smith’s proposal. He wants the city to proceed with the project to construct a second courtroom.
Mr. Smith has raised legitimate concerns over this issue. The state needs to present evidence that a second courtroom here is necessary.
But approving the home rule legislation would settle the matter. State lawmakers should take up this bill, pass it and send it to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for his signature. This would save the city money, and it would maintain a system that served Watertown residents well for many years.