California Judges Push for Release of|Critical Report on Court Construction

     (CN) – California’s reformist judges are calling for the immediate release of a long-awaited independent consultant’s review of the state’s courthouse construction program, saying the report, which excoriates the agency for mismanagement is finished but is being withheld from the public.
     “It is our understanding that this report has been issued internally. Even if the current version of the report is preliminary and not final, it is imperative that the preliminary findings of this consultant group be made public,” wrote Judge David Lampe of Kern County on behalf of the Alliance of California Judges in a letter to the Judicial Council.
     In response to dismal budget figures, the council tasked its Court Facilities Working Group with re-evaluating the list of new court construction projects commissioned under SB 1407, a 2008 bill that financed the rebuilding of dozens of California’s aging courthouses. In August 2011, the working group also hired Pegasus Global Holdings to review the Administrative Office of the Court’s construction office.
     The office was also recently taken to task in a report by the Strategic Evaluation Committee, an 11-member group of judges whose investigation into the AOC’s operations blasted the agency for wasting money, over-hiring and overcompensating staff, allowing staff to telecommute in violation of its own policies and turning out a disorderly and confusing budget.
     The SEC also found plenty to criticize in the AOC’s construction office, including its lack of fiscal planning for courthouse building and maintenance. “Aside from the initial lack of fiscal planning, even now, the Office of Court Construction and Management has not identified a funding source for the anticipated future increased maintenance costs, even though the anticipated shortfall is huge,” their report says.
     The SEC report noted that Pegasus had been hired to review the construction office, but did not say whether the judges were allowed access to any of the consulting firm’s preliminary findings. Charles Wachob, assistant presiding judge of Placer County Superior Court and chair of the SEC, was not available for comment.
     Justice Douglas Miller, head of the council’s powerful Executive and Planning Committee, responded to the Alliance in an email also sent to Courthouse News, saying the Pegasus report will be posted online prior to the Court Facilities Working Group’s public meeting on September 7.
     But public comments on the council’s effort to reduce courthouse building costs are due this week, one reason why judges are calling for the Pegasus report to be released now.
     “The information in the Pegasus report is critical both to any public comment that would be made on the 1407 projects, and it is also fundamental to any decision to be made upon the recommendations of the Strategic Evaluation Committee,” Lampe wrote, noting, like the SEC, that the construction office has not planned for a lack of funding to maintain new courthouses.
     He added, “Rumors abound that the Pegasus report has been issued internally and that it excoriates the performance of the OCCM, and that the report is being withheld for that reason, or perhaps even being modified. All interested parties need to be assured that this is not the case by an immediate public release of the report. It is unhealthy for this report to be withheld in light of the judiciary’s newfound commitment to transparency and open decision-making.”
     The Alliance judges are also concerned that courthouse construction could become another Court Case Management System, a costly court IT project decried as a boondoggle by judges and heavily criticized by the State Auditor.
     “We are concerned that the court construction program may be headed in the same direction as the CCMS fiasco–a complete failure after a wholesale waste of public funds. This would be disastrous to the branch on a number of levels,” Lampe wrote. “We think that the Pegasus report must be released to judges, the public, to the Executive, and to the Legislature, in order for there to be a determination whether a public audit of OCCM is warranted, just as it was with CCMS.”

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