EDITORIAL: Eye of the Courthouse Storm? Part One
We are listening here to the chair of the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners, Steve Wadley, reporting from the dais at the February 6 BOOC meeting — about a January 29 meeting in Denver that included Mr. Wadley, County Administrator Bentley Henderson and County Attorney Todd Starr, along with representatives of the Colorado Judicial System — including Chief Justice Nancy E. Rice, Chief of Staff Mindy Masias, Judicial Department Legal Counsel Terri Morrison, Chief Justice Rice’s Legal Counsel Andy Rottman, and LeeAnn Morrill and Grant Sullivan from the Office of the Attorney General. (Attorney Starr had noted, moments earlier, that he’d not been in a room with so many lawyers since he graduated from law school.)
“I started the meeting by saying, ‘We’re coming here with an olive branch, but I’m spoiling for a fight.’ And I let them know, right out of the gate, that I was not happy with the way Archuleta County has been treated.
“The three [commissioners] sitting here are the purse keepers. We are the constitutionally elected body that decides how money is spent in this county, and that no branch of government has the authority to dictate to another how money is going to be spent.”
A little bit of background. The Archuleta County government is required, by Colorado law, to provide suitable court facilities for use by the Sixth Judicial District, and the Sixth Judicial District is required, by Colorado law, to offer judicial services within those facilities to the residents of Archuleta County.
Our current Courthouse, in the heart of downtown Pagosa Springs, has been the subject of numerous claims of insufficiency by the staff of the Sixth Judicial District, over a number of years — complaints about lack of maintenance, poor air quality, and insufficient office and courtroom space. Last September, the District’s chief judge, Jeff Wilson, directed the staff to abandon the Courthouse completely, and the District has since been operating out of offices in nearby La Plata County. A series of conflicting reports by a series of “environmental consultants” have pointed to either terrible air quality inside the building — or to perfectly acceptable air quality inside the building.
At the moment, an Archuleta County resident who has business with the Sixth Judicial District must travel 120 miles round-trip to Durango — whether they have a car capable of making that trip, or not.
“I told them that I didn’t think the facilities for the courts should be any better than the facilities for the [County Clerk, the County Assessor, or the County Treasurer.] And for the courts to make excessive demands upon us, and to then move their operations 60 miles away, I didn’t think was appropriate…
“I told them that this is the grayest county in the state of Colorado, and that for many of our elderly citizens to have to travel 120 miles round-trip, over an often-snow-covered, wildlife-accident-prone stretch of highway — it’s a hardship. And for our working people, often working service industry jobs for minimum wage or slightly more, to have to take time off to have to pay fines or conduct any business with the court — and some of them don’t have automobiles that are really reliable for that round trip.
“I told them we didn’t feel like we were being properly served, and that our conversations [with the Sixth Judicial District] had been unproductive. And I will say that I was resentful that, at the same time we were being given letters [from the District] the same letters were being dropped off to local media outlets at the same time…
“I walked them through the history of the finances in this County, and what we’ve been able to accomplish — and how we had 20-year-old motor graders when [Michael Whiting] and I came into office…
“We’re in a lot better shape now, but we’re not there yet. We’re not able to write a check for a $25 million courthouse…
“I think the meeting went well. I think they were somewhat more receptive than I thought they would be.”
Commissioner Wadley then asked County Attorney Todd Starr to share his thoughts.
Mr. Starr smiled:
“I haven’t seen that many lawyers in the same room since I graduated law school.”
Polite laughter rippled through the meeting room.
“I will say that I came away from the meeting feeling cautiously optimistic. Steve’s characterization was spot-on. He was very strong, to start the meeting. And one of us — I don’t remember if it was Steve or Bentley or myself — one of us made a football analogy… that we are getting ready to do battle, but we came up to Denver to throw a Hail Mary pass before we do that. One last chance.”
(For anyone not familiar with a Hail Mary pass in football, you can learn more here.)
“And I was really encouraged, because, as the meeting was ending, the Chief Justice spoke up — we were at one end, and she was down at the other end of the table — and she said, ‘Mr. Starr, to the extent your analogy is accurate, it’s good that you threw the pass, and I want you to know it was caught.’
“So I take some optimism from that comment. “
We could use some optimism right now. A month ago, the BOCC came out of executive session and voted on a motion by Commissioner Michael Whiting.
“So, Mr. Chair, I move that the chair, county administrator and county attorney meet with the state court administrator to present a plan for the further rehabilitation of 449 San Juan St., which plan will contemplate a significant capital expenditure intended to meet the court’s future needs…”
Whiting’s motion also stated that the meeting should take place on or before January 31, and that — should the parties fail to come to an agreement during that meeting — BOCC will convene a special meeting “to consider the filing of an original action to mandate the reoccupation of 449 San Juan St. by the courts…”
I tend to favor the underdog in most any kind of confrontation. It seems to me — in a situation where a Board of County Commissioners in a poor rural county decides to file a lawsuit against the Colorado Judicial Department — that the BOCC might be the underdog.
It would appear that the January 29 meeting in Denver provided a calm moment of optimism, that this issue can be addressed successfully without requiring “an original action to mandate the reoccupation of 449 San Juan St. by the courts…”
But it’s also possible the momentary calm is merely the eye of the storm.