(CN) - In a searing report on California's court bureaucracy last month, the state auditor singled out the financial accountability committee for failing in its mission. Last week, the same committee approved a multi-million-dollar request for a statewide technology project, inviting a fresh blast of criticism from trial judges who said it looked to be a waste of money.
The tech project would cost $5.6 million to build data exchanges between the courts, law enforcement agencies and the Judicial Branch Statistical Information System. The project would rely almost entirely on contractors who also make up the bulk of the cost.
The same type of exchange was a heavily-promoted feature of an earlier statewide tech project, the Court Case Management System, which also relied heavily on outside contractors in spending $500 million before it was abandoned.
The latest spending idea brought immediate comparison to much smaller requests from impoverished courts in Northern California that were unanimously shut down last year by the Judicial Council, which is chaired by the state's chief justice who also appoints most of its members.
"It's an awful lot of money when they couldn't spare $72,000 for Siskiyou County," said Judge Greg Dohi of Los Angeles.
He was referring to the hat-in-hand visit to San Francisco by judges from Siskiyou Superior Court in the far north of California. In addition to rejecting their very modest request, the council voted unanimously against $82,000 for Mono and $300,000 for Del Norte County, all courts trying to avoid firing their employees.
The presiding judges in those courts were unavailable for comment on the latest vote in favor of a much larger sum for contract employees on a tech project. The only two phone numbers for Mono Superior Court both lead to an automated message that says, "Due to significant cutbacks in our court's budget, we are not answering any public phone calls."
Set Up to Fail
Judge Michele Flurer of Los Angeles, who voted against the latest tech request, said in an interview, "I had insufficient information to approve it. In concept it's a good proposal but I just want to make sure that we have sufficient information to make that decision. I want a business case."
She added, "I'm secretary treasurer for the California Judges Association and I'd like to see good support for any money being spent on behalf of the courts."
The new tech project will cost $5.6 million over five years, to allow trial courts to send information to the DMV, Department of Social Services, Highway Patrol, Department of Justice and the JBSIS, for judicial statistics. It will require eight new contract workers, costing $3.2 million of the total.
The proposal to hire more contract workers for the court administrative office runs contrary to specific points made in the state auditor's lengthy critique, and it runs counter to the position taken very recently by the accountability committee itself.
"The AOC's use of contractors, temporary workers, and consultants has resulted in significantly higher costs than the AOC would have incurred had it hired state employees to perform this work," wrote Auditor Elaine Howle. Throughout her report, she referred to the 800-strong, San Francisco-based agency by its former name, the Administrative Office of the Courts.