DA Objects to New Court Site Choice in Modesto

     MODESTO, Calif. (CN) – Stanislaus County’s district attorney joined a growing chorus of community leaders opposed to the site chosen by the California judiciary for a new $277 million courthouse.
     The Modesto Bee reports that District Attorney Birgit Fladager emailed her objections to the Administrative Office of the Courts, which green-lit the site acquisition phase of the project earlier this year. In May, a committee chose a site in downtown Modesto two blocks south of the 50-year-old and woefully inadequate criminal courthouse.
     But Fladager told retired Judge Steven Jahr – who has final say over where the courthouse ultimately lands – that the state’s preferred location is too far from the district attorney’s office. She asked Jahr to consider the safety of prosecutors and witnesses, and go with a secondary site, a block away from her office.
     “Our primary concern is the safety of our victims, witnesses and staff,” Fladager’s email states. “A closer location obviously reduces the risk of possible harm to individuals traveling back and forth to the courthouse.”
     The DA noted that more than 40 lawyers – pulling rolling briefcases filled with files – would have to travel three blocks in all kinds of weather each morning if officials go with the preferred site between 9th and 10th streets and G and H streets.
     “We would have to provide shuttles back and forth,” Fladager wrote.
     She asked officials to consider the secondary site on the block between 13th and 14th streets and H and I streets, which currently houses the former Modesto Bee building. The DA’s office is a block away, at 12th and I.
     “I absolutely believe that the I Street site is the much better location from the perspective of the District Attorney’s Office,” Fladager wrote.
     Other community leaders have also questioned the judiciary’s choice, which was made behind closed doors and without public input. That list of critics includes retired U.S. District Judge Frank Damrell, former Stanislaus County supervisor Ray Simon and E&J Gallo Winery matriarch Marie Gallo.
     In May, the Bee reported that city officials have been actively lobbying for the preferred site, which the city partly owns. To sway the judiciary’s decision, Modesto offered to buy the other properties on the block, move all the utility lines and then “flip” the property to the state.
     State court officials stressed that the decision must be made and property purchased by June 2015, when the current authorization expires. They said there is no guarantee that money would be reallocated to Stanislaus County if the deadline is missed.
     While site acquisition must continue on schedule, the Judicial Council nevertheless delayed architectural design until fiscal year 2014-15 because of ongoing budget problems.
     The new courthouse would replace seven facilities scattered around Modesto, several of which the state leases. It will also include space for four new judgeships and basic services like a self-help counter, jury assembly and deliberations rooms, and separate hallways for criminal defendants – all currently impossible because of space restrictions.
     The judiciary expects to complete the courthouse by 2019.

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