No easy answers on court closure

2013-01-23 09:39:57

BARSTOW • County court officials expressed their sympathies and shared many of the frustrations of their audience during a special meeting at the Harvey House Tuesday night to address the looming Barstow court closure in May.

“We’re losing our court family,” San Bernardino County Presiding Judge Marsha Slough said. “It hurts. I feel it.”

The sentiment was in response to man in the audience asking if the county court officials, indeed, could “appreciate our pain,” since none of them live in Barstow.

Much emphasis, throughout the night, was placed on statewide budgeting as cause for the San Bernardino Superior Court’s expected $13 million deficit this year.

“This is a state-level issue,” Carol Randall, economic development chairwoman and vice president of the Barstow Chamber of Commerce, said.

Steven Nash, the court’s executive officer, provided the court’s financial breakdown at the onset of the meeting.

“We’re facing, really, an unprecedented drop in what’s available,” he said about funding. “There are some real inequities in our system.”

Those inequities include far less resources than other counties in the state, even though those counties are deemed comparable by statewide standards.

San Bernardino County has 91 of the 156.1 judicial officers, and 984 of the 1,512 staff, it should have, Nash said.

That unbalanced allocation has put pressure on the county court, Slough said, to balance the budget quickly. Unlike with the state, she noted, counties are not legally allowed to operate in a deficit and balancing the budget is “hard to do when you cut, and cut and cut.”

Many in the audience who came to have their voices heard, like former City Councilwoman Gloria Darling who also maintains two businesses in Barstow, implored local and county officials to find solutions or, at least, other options. Darling suggested having a satellite office in Barstow or having court open three to four times a week.

“We are looking at ways to do video,” Slough said. She explained they’re giving it a test run with juvenile cases currently and law doesn’t allow video court for traffic cases. As far as the part-time court idea, she said that would be too costly.

“It’s very hard to fraction out a slice of work,” she said, “and we don’t have the funds to do so.”

Slough also said she and other county court officials have met with the city several times to address issues that will arise once the court closes.

Mayor Julie Hackbarth-McIntyre said she is seeking ways to mitigate those issues.

“Our job as a city,” she said, “is to figure out how we can lessen the impacts.”

Larry Allen, the court’s Assistant Presiding Judge, said the county court tried to “soften the blow” by ensuring traffic, small claims, family and landlord/tenant cases that would have been heard in Barstow were moved to Victorville instead of San Bernardino or Rancho Cucamonga.

Most officials who spoke urged the public to go “full press” — a term used several times — in taking their protests to Sacramento. A petition was available outside the banquet room for anyone to sign upon leaving.

Slough said she knew Gov. Jerry Brown had discussed San Bernardino County in a recent meeting.

“My goal, my promise to you,” she said, “is when we can have a presence again in this community — we will.”

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