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Islanders say court is going nowhere

Not wanting the Bainbridge Island Municipal Court to move to Poulsbo, islanders say they have found a way to upgrade the Rolling Bay facility without public funds and keep the local judicial branch of government on the island.

Community members will present their proposal to keep the court on Bainbridge at next week’s City Council study session. Their proposal includes an online petition with 650 signatures and counting; a proposed new lease with the current facility’s owner; and some building reconstruction plans.

On a 4-3 vote last month, the City Council moved to begin negotiations with the City of Poulsbo to co-locate the Bainbridge and Poulsbo municipal courts after a collaborative task force of the two cities’ mayors and councilors spent months researching options. The primary reason the council majority voted to proceed with lease negotiations was the lack of safety and security in the current Rolling Bay facility.

In response to the council’s decision, a group of citizens started a petition and a plan to block the move.

“We have some wonderful local solutions to address all of the council’s concerns,” said Ann Wilkinson, who started the online petition. “What’s most paramount is to keep the court local. We want it to be a safe and secure place. The response has really been overwhelming. We have good news for the City Council and the island, and it will be a blessing to everyone.”

Island realtor Jim Kennedy worked with citizens, court staff, the current Rolling Bay landlord and the police to come up with a plan to address the council’s cost and security concerns. He negotiated a five-year lease with three additional five-year options and an annual rent cost of $24,000.

Previously, Tord Vestman, the Rolling Bay building owner lowered the rent to $31,500 after the city’s interest in moving to Poulsbo was first made public. Negotiations for the lease arrangement in Poulsbo will likely start at $42,500.

Kennedy said his goal was to guarantee an island courthouse for the next 20 years, at a cost “much lower than anything Poulsbo can muster,” he said. He added that he’s found a way to address many of the buildings security flaws without asking the city to pick up the tab.

“The necessary upgrades will cost about $30,000, none of which would be paid for by the city,” said Kennedy. “It will be paid for by private donations of materials and labor. We are expecting to see some contributions from civic organizations in terms of non-code work, like, if the place needs paint we will paint it ourselves after the structural elements are in place.”

Kennedy’s redesign, he said, would provide a separate security holding area for prisoners and suspects that is segregated from the public and accessible through a side door. It would also prevent victims from being forced to see their abusers before entering the court room.

He also proposes enlarging the YWCA Alive office so the room will have complete privacy, a curtained window and soundproof walls to protect the privacy of the victims. The current room is windowless, cramped and has thin walls.

The plans also include the costs of security scameras for the outside of the building and other features, such as a secure space for officers to install electronic home detention bracelets, that the Poulsbo facility can’t provide.

“There will be no place in the building that isn’t secure. You get in and the first person you see is a Bainbridge officer, and there isn’t any public space where a citizen wouldn’t first be screened before entering. In Poulsbo, by definition and nature, the building is an open public space because it is part of city hall,” said Kennedy. “Citizens are there not just for court, but also for daily business.”

Kennedy visited the Poulsbo facility and was concerned about citizen privacy in the courtroom because of the glass windows, lack of screening upon entering the building and because criminals would be walked directly through city hall to get inside the court room.

Kennedy said he spent a lot of time on the redesign because losing the court means losing a way to hold criminals accountable within the community they’ve hurt.

“If you commit a crime in your community, at the end of the criminal process you have to apologize to the community you hurt,” said Kennedy, who is also an attorney. “An apology in Poulsbo to Bainbridge Island is far less legitimate than an apology to Bainbridge tendered here on the island.”

Presiding Judge Kate Carruthers said she’s heard from many community members who want to keep the court here and has personally spoken out against the move because it’s her obligation to address issues that effect the administrations of justice and the judicial system.

“This is one area where the canon of judicial law specifically says judges have a right and duty to address this,” Carruthers said this week. “My impartiality in the courtroom is not effected by my opinion to have the court stay here. The decision affects access to court on Bainbridge Island and I have a right to speak out on those issues.”

Carruthers is still waiting to hear how the city will choose to deal with her contract in 2011. Carruthers was appointed to a four-year term in October 2009 at a pay rate of 67 percent (0.67 FTE) of the salary of a district court judge.

The council passed a motion in October to reduce her pay rate to 0.50 FTE in 2011. The reduction was made, in part, because the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) declared in its annual assessment that Bainbridge needs only a 0.48 FTE judge to meet its caseload needs.

Carruthers said she doesn’t believe the council can lawfully do that, citing state constitution and law.

“The AOC study provides a statewide statistic for how much bench time judges need for cases filed in court, but it excludes consideration for what judges do,” she said. “While the number is correct, it’s not the complete information. It doesn’t measure administrative time, job responsibility or

Mayor Bob Scales said it was his understanding that changing Carruther’s compensations and terms could lead to the termination of her contract. Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer and City Attorney Jack Johnson are addressing the legal issue.

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