EDITORIAL: Wheels of Justice… or Justice on Wheels? Part One

When I have a question about the electoral process — about, say, the Fair Campaign Practices Act, for example — the first person I seek out, for information and advice, is Archuleta County Clerk June Madrid. Ms. Madrid knows more about elections, I think, than all the county’s 9,000 registered voters put together.

So you can imagine my frustration when I arrived at the Archuleta County Courthouse yesterday, Monday September 11, to find a notice taped to the glass doors:

I had never before heard of a county courthouse being closed on September 11. Was this a new federal holiday, that I missed hearing about?

Also taped to the glass, above the blue “Closed” notice, was another notice that only added to the mystery.

It read:

“Effective this date, September 7, 2017, the courts, the court clerk’s office and probation department in the Archuleta courthouse are closed. Until further notice we will be housed in the La Plata County Courthouse in Durango. If you need to speak to the court clerk please call the La Plata County Court at 970-247-2304. If you need to pay a fine or file any documents with the Archuleta Court you will need to do that in person in Durango. The La Plata Courts are located at 1060 2nd Ave, Durango Colorado.

“We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.”

Well, yes. I suppose this will cause some inconvenience for taxpayers who need to file documents, or pay fines.

A couple of hours earlier, I’d come across another piece of the mystery, although at that point, I didn’t yet know about the courthouse closure. I was walking through the lobby of the Parelli Building — where I’m helping build a new fence for the Pagosa Peak Open School, our community’s new charter elementary school — and I ran into the building co-owner, Mark Weiler, giving a tour to three Archuleta County officials:

Commissioner Ronnie Maez, County Administrator Bentley Henderson, and County Attorney Todd Starr.

I don’t normally see County officials touring the Parelli Building. (I’m there quite a bit, now that the school has opened.) But some of our readers may remember that, just over a year ago, the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) were considering possible locations for a combined “Justice Center” — new court facilities, combined with a new Sheriff’s office and a new County jail. One of the three locations under consideration was the Parelli Building, offered at a sale price of about $4.7 million, as I recall.

That particular option seemed to me, as an outside observer, to be a suitable and somewhat less expensive option, when compared to the $28 million option on Hot Springs Boulevard — the location, and price, ultimately selected by commissioners Steve Wadley and Clifford Lucero last September.

(The rejection of the Parelli Building option thus allowed the Pagosa Peak Open School to enter into negotiations with Mr. Weiler and Mr. Parelli, and ultimately, to lease about 5,500 square feet in the building.)

As I stood looking at the “Closed” notice on the door of the courthouse, the tour of the Parelli Building by three County officials suddenly began to make sense. They were looking for space to rent.

My next step was to call my friend, journalist Cynda Green. Ms. Green had attended last Tuesday’s BOCC work session on my behalf (while I was visiting my mom in Seattle) and had recorded the conversations that morning. I had not yet had a chance to listen to the recording..

“Cynda, did the BOCC discuss issues with the County Courthouse, at their work session on Tuesday.”

“Yes, they had a short conversation about that.”

“What did they say, about the Courthouse?”

“You’ll have to listen to the recording. It happened near the end of the meeting.”

Here’s the beginning of that discussion, on Tuesday September 5. We are listening to Administrator Bentley Henderson:

“I’m sure you’ve all heard, there is some concern about the… I guess for lack of a better term, the ‘air quality’ in the west wing of the courthouse. Health safety. So we’re continuing to monitor that situation, and will follow up as necessary.”

Commissioner Michael Whiting:

“Smell? Or what?”

Mr. Henderson:

“No, apparently it’s creating some health issues.”

Commissioner Ronnie Maez:

“Has it been determined?”

Mr. Henderson:

“No. Not to my knowledge.”

Commissioner Maez:

“So it hasn’t been determined yet.”

That was the discussion among the County leaders on Tuesday.

Then, at some point on Thursday morning, the Judicial Department abandoned the Courthouse.  And so did the Sheriff and his staff. Here’s the notice that appeared on the entrance to the Sheriff’s office:

“We’re sorry for the inconvenience, however, the Archuleta County Sherriff’s Office is undergoing an evacuation of the downtown offices. We have currently relocated to 777 County Road 600. As of today, we are not open for business, but hope to be mid-week. Should you have questions regarding VINs, Concealed Weapons Permits, Fingerprints or any other questions, you can call 970-264-8430. We will check messages frequently, so please leave a message if no one answers and your call will be returned as quickly as possible.

“Should an Archuleta County resident be arrested, they will immediately be transported to La Plata County Jail. Inquiries for any inmates can be made to 264-8461 in Pagosa Springs or 247-1161 in La Plata County…”

A friend of mine close to the situation shared some thoughts on the sudden and somewhat mysterious situation. Apparently, a Sheriff’s deputy was recently admitted to the hospital with a respiratory ailment. Sheriff Valdez made a determination that the illness had resulted from problems with the “air quality” in the County Courthouse, and ordered an evacuation of his entire staff to the Archuleta County Emergency Management offices near the airport on Piedra Road.

According to my friend’s report, the County recently performed multiple air quality tests at the Courthouse and the results showed no health threats in the building.

Perhaps the Judicial Department was unimpressed by the multiple air quality tests, because they seem to have adopted Sheriff Valdez’ approach to serving the public:

Evacuate first and ask questions later. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Of course, all of this is taking place exactly two months before the 2017 November election, during which Archuleta County voters will be asked to increase local sales taxes to fund a greatly enlarged County jail and Sheriff’s Office at a new Harman Park location — a move that is intimately tied, financially, with a substantial enlargement of the Judicial Department facilities within the existing courthouse.

I supposed this is the perfect moment for a sudden “air quality” crisis, if you are a supporter of the proposed tax increase…

Read Part Two…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.