We could really use Perry Mason to resolve the courtroom drama that’s persisted in the city of Watertown for the past several years.
But no such luck with that! The cast of characters we have will need to suffice.
While campaigning last year, Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith made an issue of the mandate to construct a second city courtroom. The project is expected to cost Watertown as least $3.1 million.
Mr. Smith said representatives of Watertown were never consulted like they should have been before state lawmakers approved this measure. He also pointed out that a courtroom sits empty in the Dulles State Office Building.
The 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.
Local officials questioned whether these regulations should apply to the city. But Judge James C. Tormey III, administrative judge for the Fifth Judicial District, insisted that Watertown must proceed with a new courtroom.
But a recent incident has breathed new life into this debate.
“Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith says ‘it’s an opportune time’ to go back to having a full- and part-time city court judge and to no longer proceed with a planned second courtroom as the result of City Court Judge Eugene R. Renzi running for surrogate court judge,” according to a story published March 11 by the Watertown Daily Times. “With Judge Renzi running for a Jefferson County Surrogate Court seat, Mayor Smith contends there’s no need for two full-time city court judges and a courtroom for each judge in City Hall. Mayor Smith made his views known after Judge Renzi announced … that he was running for surrogate court.”
Not so fast! Even though Judge Tormey died last year, the pressure on the city hasn’t let up. His successor, Judge James P. Murphy, rejected Mr. Smith’s assessment.
“Judge Murphy accused the mayor of dragging his feet on completing the $3.1 million City Hall courtroom project that the state Office of Court Administration requires,” the article reported. “He accuses the mayor of reneging on an agreement that the city had already worked out for the second courtroom. The court administration already made concessions on the scope of the courtroom project, Judge Murphy said. That plan included creating a court hearing room, rather than a full-fledged courtroom with a jury box. But Mayor Smith has said the second courtroom is an unfunded state mandate.”
Mr. Smith has raised valid concerns over the state’s push for Watertown to spend its own money on a second courtroom. Is it possible to re-examine if the city needs two full-time judges? And what about the vacant space at the Dulles State Office Building?
State authorities should provide data showing the need for a second courtroom in Watertown. If they can’t come up with the evidence, their case needs to be dismissed with prejudice.
On the other hand, resistance on the city’s part may ultimately cause more problems.
The cost of the project has already escalated from the initial estimate of $1.5 million. Further delays will likely result in a higher price tag.
Local state legislators should weigh in. If they can persuade court officials that the city doesn’t need to go through with the work, that would be wonderful.
But the court system holds most of the cards here; it could order the construction and withhold state money from Watertown. So Mr. Smith and other City Council members must soon decide how long they can afford to keep up this battle — because it can’t go on forever.