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Mendocino County law enforcement leaders oppose court cuts

Published: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 5:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 8:20 a.m.

Mendocino County law enforcement leaders united Wednesday to oppose plans to reduce court services in Fort Bragg, saying the cost-cutting measure would limit access for coastal residents and result in fewer officers on the street.

The objection came in a letter to local judges from District Attorney David Eyster, Sheriff Tom Allman and the county's three police chiefs, who asked justices to consider making reductions at the main courthouse in Ukiah instead.

They said it was "ill-advised" to limit the Fort Bragg operation to three days a week by Jan. 1 and move all jury trials, felony and juvenile matters to the inland court, which is 90 minutes away across winding roads.

"Victims, witnesses, jurors, business owners, and other interested coastal residents who already have difficulty attending court proceedings in Fort Bragg . . . will now be forced to undertake an even more daunting and arduous trek," the letter said.

The Fort Bragg Police Department will be hardest hit, the chiefs said. Officers attending court hearings will be drawn away from their duties for extended periods. Now, they are able to patrol the streets and respond to calls while waiting for cases to be called at the Fort Bragg court.

Other agencies including state Fish and Game, the CHP and the District Attorney's office also will be affected, the group of law enforcement leaders said.

"This public service-oriented compromise works well when the courthouse is within a few minutes' drive time," they said. "It fails when the courthouse is 90 minutes away."

Assistant Presiding Judge David Nelson said the court has already cut elsewhere in Mendocino County. About 20 positions have been eliminated in the past four years, he said.

This year the state asked for another $768,000 in cuts from a $5.3 million budget. The court found ways to save all but $200,000 before proposing the Fort Bragg cuts, which save about $50,000, he said.

"None of us want to do this," Nelson said. "We've cut everywhere else we could find. This was another step we could take."

Nelson said he would be open to suggestions about other ways to make up the difference. A public meeting at the Fort Bragg courthouse will be held Nov. 29. Written comments will be accepted through Dec. 30.

"It's not a done deal," he said.

Since 2008-2009, the court has seen its funding cut almost 22 percent. In the past, the court has made up for the cuts by eliminating programs. But it's not able to absorb the latest reduction without trimming payroll and court hours, it said.

It warned layoffs are possible at the courthouses in Fort Bragg and Ukiah.

To save money, court will no longer be in session on Thursdays and Fridays. The court clerk's office will remain open Monday through Friday but hours will be reduced from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Also, the court will no longer hear in-custody matters.

"So long as the governor and state Legislature continue to reduce the judicial branch budget, the local courts have no alternative but to reduce court services," a notice from the court said. "The court has no other source of revenue."

Meanwhile, locals remained critical of the move, which they said came without public input. The reductions follow the hiring of two new judges last year for a combined $350,000.

Jim Luther, a retired Mendocino County judge, called the reductions of the so-called "Ten Mile" court in Fort Bragg wrong and unfair. Court hearings have been held in Fort Bragg for decades, he said, and they are being cut without similar reductions at the main courthouse.

He encouraged people to object to the changes by emailing members of the bench.

"I know and respect each of our judges," he said in a letter. "They don't want to make a bad decision. They need to hear what you have to say about how their decision is going to affect your lives and our coastal community before they decide this. So say it to them."

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@presdemocrat.com

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