Columbus decides to split from Eastern Columbia County Joint Municipal Court

September 7, 2018
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Columbus Mayor Mike Thom said the city will have to move fast to establish its own municipal court after deciding to leave the Eastern Columbia County Joint Court system last week.

After spending months trying to get the Eastern Columbia County Joint Municipal Court to return to Columbus, city officials have reversed course, choosing to split from the court.

City council members approved the decision at a special council meeting Aug. 31 and provided an update during its Sept. 4 Committee of the Whole meeting at city hall. The decision was somewhat frustrating to the council, which spent several months negotiating terms with the court’s governing committee. In late 2017, the committee voted to move court proceedings to Randolph, despite Columbus being a larger municipality. Prior to the move, the court was in Fall River, but faced space and security concerns.

City Administrator Patrick Vander Sanden said location is the main issue prompting Columbus’ departure from the court. Vander Sanden said the city provided several options for the committee, but during a meeting Aug. 29, it decided against moving the court again.

“Concerns raised by the committee members included a hesitation to move the court again after just one year in Randolph, and in considering the statements made by the court clerk about work environments,” Vander Sanden said.

In previous council meetings, Vander Sanden said the clerk voiced concern about adequate security in Columbus. According to the city, Columbus was willing to provide free court and clerk office space, renovations to prepare the clerk’s office and pay for court relocation to the city.

“There were lots of back-and-forth from the city and the committee about how we would address these questions,” Vander Sanden said.

The administrator said the committee turned down the city’s proposals three times this year, despite Columbus’ willingness to provide information and possible solutions. According to Vander Sanden, Columbus offered the use of council chambers and free office space for the clerk for 10 years.

“On Friday we had the meeting and there was a lot of careful discussion on the decision,” Vander Sanden said. “Ultimately, a vote was made to inform the Eastern Columbia County Joint Municipal Court that we will be withdrawing.”

Moving forward, the city will likely form its own municipal court, which would begin Jan. 1, 2019. While there will be plenty of work to do to establish the court, council members believe it’s the best option for the city. Council President Andy Traxler advocated strongly in keeping the court in Columbus. He said Columbus did everything the committee asked for and was still denied.

“There may be some initial challenges to getting the court set up, but the benefits clearly outweigh the negatives when you consider saving time for our police officers needing to travel to court, the convenience of our citizens who have to conduct business with the court, and in a growing community like Columbus, we need to consider the future,” Traxler said.

To create a new court, the city will have to pass an ordinance, select a judge to oversee the court until an election is held for the next term, and have the proper infrastructure to allow the court to properly function.

Mayor Mike Thom said it’s still possible the committee could come back with further negotiations. However, he would like to establish a timeline and adopt an ordinance to create the new court.

“We can’t wait and talk about this for three months because there is a lot to do if we’re going to have a court in place by Jan. 1,” Thom said.

“You have a fair amount of urgency right now,” said City Attorney Paul Johnson. “You have budget issues which are probably more significant than you think.”

Johnson said there is still time to have further discussions with the court committee, but the city can’t wait too long on a deadline. On Sept. 4, the Committee of the Whole decided to draft an ordinance to form the court at the next council meeting.

“I haven’t seen any indication (the committee) wants us to come back to the table, so we’ll wait and see,” Traxler said.

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