EDITORIAL: The People vs. the Sixth Judicial District, Part Two

Read Part One

The Archuleta School District (ASD) Board of Education holds its meetings in the Middle School Library, a garishly decorated space highlighted by orange carpet and bright orange walls and metal girders — decor dating from of the late 1950s, I suppose. The acoustics are not outstanding. The hard wooden seats that the audience occupies are less than comfortable.

But we make do, here in Pagosa Springs.

Standing to the left of the seated School Board, from left, Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson and Administrator Eric Hogue on December 12, 2017. Seated in the back of the audience, with their backs to the camera, County Commissioner Ronnie Maez, County Administrator Bentley Henderson, County Commissioner Michael Whiting.

The room, as arranged for School Board meetings, also does not include a “witness stand” such as one might find in a courtroom. But the two representatives from the Sixth Judicial District who spoke to the Board on Tuesday evening, December 12 — Court Administrator Eric Hogue and Chief Judge Jeffrey Wilson — might have been more comfortable in a witness stand, while they were being cross-examined by the School Board.

The Judicial District had explained that, for reasons of health and safety, they now wish to occupy the County Administration Building opposite the Middle School gymnasium on Lewis Street, rather than move back into their previous offices and courtrooms in the downtown County Courthouse. And they hoped the School Board would endorse such a move.

ASD School Board President Greg Schick had just asked the two court representatives why they were proposing to occupy (less than perfectly suitable?) offices directly across the street from the Middle School, when they had access to the (crowded but fully equipped?) 80-year-old court facilities in the Courthouse. Judge Wilson had responded that the Courthouse was unsafe, “on various levels.”

Mr. Schick continued his cross-examination.

“So the County Clerk and her staff, and the County Treasurer and her staff can still use the Courthouse?”

Judge Wilson:

“That’s not our decision.”

After a long moment of silence, President Schick asked his board of they had more questions. Board member Bruce Dryburgh responded:

“Well, I thought we were going to get more of a good sales pitch, about why we should [endorse this move.] You know, if my options are that I don’t have any options, I’m just not comfortable with that.”

President Schick then asked County Sheriff Rich Valdez to share his thoughts on the move. The Sheriff explained that the Administration Building poses some challenges, in terms of providing court security — which the Sheriff is legally required to provide — but that his staff is willing to accept the challenge.

Sheriff Valdez has also chosen to abandon his offices in the downtown Courthouse, citing possible health hazards — although testing by multiple agencies has failed to identify any such hazards.

President Schick:

“Rich, I have a question for you, and you don’t have to answer it. Your mother works in the old Courthouse… Does she feel safe?”

County Clerk June Madrid is Sheriff Valdez’ mother. She and her staff continue to operate in their existing office spaces.

The Sheriff responded, “I can’t answer that for you.”

President Schick then asked if the County commissioners, present in the audience, would address the idea of turning their Administration offices over to the Judicial District. Commissioner Ronnie Maez promptly recused himself and left the meeting (presumably because the hearing has not been properly noticed as a public BOCC meeting.)

Commissioner Michael Whiting, however, took the witness stand.

“I want to apologize for you guys being put on the spot on something that you’re not connected to in any significant way.”

Mr. Whiting explained that the BOCC had attended the evening meeting because they had heard that the Judicial District was going to seek an endorsement from the School District for a move into the County Administration Building, which had been offered to the courts back when the environmental testing of the Courthouse was still ongoing. The results of that effort, by multiple testing entities, now seems fairly conclusive. No environmental hazards have been identified.

Mr. Whiting explained that the BOCC’s offer had been rejected by the Judicial District three weeks ago.

“That offer was declined almost immediately, and there were lots of good reasons [cited].” The rejection letter had mentioned security concerns, among other reasons.

“That offer isn’t on the table right now,” Mr. Whiting continued. “When they turned down that offer, that offer came off the table, as far as the BOCC and the County was
concerned. We haven’t heard from the courts in the interim, since they turned down the offer and they showed up here…

“As far as a suitable building [for the courts,] we have the most-tested building in the county, in terms of health. Five or six environmental hygienists, CDPHE, the fire district, on and on — over years, I might add — came back — all of them, everyone of them — all came back well within OSHA limits.

“Well within OSHA standards. Habitable and safe.”

We might note, however, that over the past 25 years the Archuleta County government has treated the old Courthouse as a building that was going to be abandoned someday, when funds became available for a new facility. That intention was evidenced by a general lack building modernization and maintenance. The BOCC’s attempt, this past November, to raise the local sales tax to build just a small portion of such a new facility — a Sheriff’s Office and jail, only — failed at the polls.

Whiting acknowledged the age of the Courthouse and the lack of renovations to provide enhanced court security and convenience. But safe to occupy.

“We [the BOCC] were willing to move back in. But not now. We’ve put our staff through enough at this point…

“We apologize that you had to get stuck in the middle of this, and I wish I had been able to cut this whole thing short by saying something on the front end. But I was curious to see… to find out what was going on.”

Commissioner Whiting stated that all three County commissioners are in agreement, that the offer to allow the Judicial District to occupy the Administration Building is off the table.

Chief Judge Wilson then apologized to the School Board, stating that he had been unaware that the BOCC had withdrawn their offer. Administrator Hogue and Judge Wilson then picked up their jackets and prepared to exit the meeting — looking understandably uncomfortable — but President Schick asked them to stay and listen to the rest of the School Board discussion on the topic.

Mr. Schick then noted that a School District decision to endorse a move by the Judicial District into the County building on Lewis Street would obviously depend upon further negotiations between the BOCC and the Judicial District. But any endorsement of the plan by the School Board, Mr. Schick stated, would be preceded by public meetings where the general community could sufficiently express their feelings about such a move.

Mr. Schick noted that ASD and the School Board have made great strides in re-establishing the public’s trust (following the “mega-campus” debacle in 2011) and has every intention of retaining that level of trust, by insuring community input into important ASD decisions.

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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.