Union Gripes Trail Court Budget Meeting
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A budget meeting for California's courts on Wednesday was trailed by complaints from union representatives saying they did not receive timely notice and were shut out of the proceedings when an audio system failed.
Legislative staffers were also cut off when the audiocast went down due to an unexplained "system failure."
While the Administrative Office of the Courts set up a conference line for a few committee members, there were not enough lines for the legislative aides and labor reps who wanted to hear how big chunks of the courts' budget are being divided.
"We have a vested interest in trial court funding; how the funds get distributed and what purposes they are establishing priorities around," Michelle Castro with the Service Employees International Union said in an interview. "We're at a very critical juncture in the trial courts. We are going through extreme amounts of cuts on the backs of court workers."
The advisory committee for trial court budgets approved roughly $72 million for programs supporting the trial courts and technology projects. The allocations included $18 million to maintain interim versions of the now-defunct Court Case Management System and the Arizona server that hosts it.
An additional $6.9 million request to update the network infrastructure for several courts was deferred until October, along with a $600,000 request from Orange County Superior Court to upgrade its telecommunications network.
"We are all going to be relying more and more on technology but we have to approach these things with care and caution, and make sure these types of expenses are what we should be doing," said committee member and Santa Clara head clerk David Yamasaki.
Earlier this year, the Legislature approved $60 million in additional funding for the trial courts, with specific instructions that it be spent on keeping courthouses open and saving court jobs. The union representatives and legislative staffers wanted to listen in on Wednesday's discussion to see if those instructions were being followed.
Libby Sanchez, a lobbyist for the Laborers' International Union of North America, reported in a letter to the committee that ten new layoffs had taken place in Riverside County since the extra $60 million was given to the courts by the Legislature, and one of its courts had closed for two work days.
"Our big issue is the Legislature said this $60 million was directly supposed to go to making sure the court doors were open. Is that really happening?" Sanchez said. "We can't wrap our head around the fact that, with the funding we got, why there still has to be layoffs and a two-day court closure in Blythe."
"If it's not being allocated appropriately to ensure what the Legislature intended, that's our problem. That's why we're concerned," she added. "That's why we were frustrated this meeting wasn't really a public meeting."
During Wednesday's committee meeting, which was open to any members of the press who made their way to the court administrative office headquarters in downtown San Francisco, judges and bureaucrats grappled with a list of funding needs to present to lawmakers in budget proposals for fiscal year 2014-15.
A survey among the state's 58 trial courts, discussed at the meeting, shows that employee benefit increases are a top priority for courts. The committee agreed to recommend that California's court rule-making body, the Judicial Council, pursue those benefits with the Legislature.
Castro from the SEIU called the focus on workers "refreshing," but was skeptical.
"At the end of day the money doesn't get passed down to the employees. Our members have picked up a lot of the increased costs of employee benefits. When they ask for money for employees it should be used for that, and that hasn't always been the case," she said.
Wednesday's slices of budget came from two major funds, the Trial Court Trust Fund and the Improvement and Modernization Fund, which AOC finance director Zlatko Theodorovic warned will soon be in the red.
"This fund has an imbalance. It spends more than the revenues that come in," he said. "So we're going to have some difficult decisions to make for the 14-15 fiscal year," he said.
He also noted that most of the allocations remained unchanged or were reduced from last year.
But technology issues dogged the session, both the large amount necessary to sustain an outdated case management system abandoned after costing California a half-billion dollars -- and the collapse of the system for broadcasting audio through the AOC's website along with a simultaneous streaming transcript.
That failure exacerbated what Castro said was inadequate notice.
"We found out the day before and went online and looked at the agenda and saw they were talking about fiscal year 2014-15 priorities, the distribution of funding and their allocation methodology," she said. "We're trying to be informed. They allege they're trying to be inclusive. But when we're not afforded that opportunity to participate, it's really frustrating."
The breakdown could not have come at worse time for the AOC and Judicial Council.
In this year's budget bill, lawmakers allocated extra money for the courts on condition that all meetings held by the Judicial Council's plethora of committees, subcommittees, working groups, advisory groups and task forces be open to the public. The council was also supposed to work it out so that those who could not attend in person could still hear the discussions.
Governor Jerry Brown blue-penciled, or vetoed, the open-meeting requirement after Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye lobbied against it. She said at the time that she planned to open more meetings in the coming year.
According to current Judicial Council rules, any committee meeting can be opened at the discretion of the committee chair. But that prerogative is rarely exercised.
"The Chief Justice said the whole purpose of making the advisory committee open to the public was to make sure the public was able to be more participatory in the process," Sanchez noted.
The union representatives also argued that the timing of the budget meeting made it difficult to attend in person.
"It's right in the middle of the legislative workweek and is a big hearing day for some people," said Castro. "Staff and lobbyists were not able to participate in person, but at minimum people were thinking they could listen in and be informed on what the discussion is," she said.
She noted that the technology for setting up conference calls is very common and easily arranged.
"Some are frustrated for the fact they couldn't set up a conference line and I found that pretty surprising," she added. "I have been in state Department of Education calls where there are literally hundreds of people on the call. So there's a way to control those calls so big calls aren't a free for all. It's so surprising the AOC can't do the same."
An AOC spokesperson explained through email that the meeting could not wait.
"We set it up to accommodate the schedule of the presiding judges and court executives who would be making the recommendations," said spokesperson Peter Allen. "This had to be done quickly, as committee members had to get their recommendations to the Judicial Council before the council meeting next week."
"Unfortunately, the low-cost vendor we have for streaming live video made technical changes in its product and couldn't provide a reliable signal. Staff discovered the problem during routine testing the afternoon before the meeting," Allen added. "The meeting room could not accommodate a listening-in line. We had no time to set up something different."
The full Judicial Council is set to review the committee's recommendations next week, but the audio system failure makes it unlikely the meeting will be broadcast.