Funding Approved for 23 California Court Projects

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In its quest to save nearly $390 million in court construction costs, the California judiciary’s court facilities working group voted Friday to approve 23 projects and put seven new courthouses on hold indefinitely.
     The working group also spent 15 minutes discussing a lengthy audit of the Office of Court Construction and Management, a department of the Administrative Office of the Courts that was found by independent consultant Pegasus Global Holdings to be in serious need of transparency and accountability.
     The committee unanimously accepted the audit, for which there was no public comment, with the caveat that the time frame for implementing its recommendations be extended by six months to July 16, 2013.
     Friday’s meeting wrapped up more than 20 hours of public hearings on the court construction program, the result of the committee’s task to reassess all courthouse projects after the Legislature and trial judges criticized extraordinarily high courthouse construction costs.
     “Our credibility is on the line, to the Legislature and the governor,” said Assistant Presiding Judge Gary Orozco of Fresno.
     Courts in Inyo, Imperial, El Dorado and Los Angeles counties whose projects were on the fence eventually got the nod from the committee to proceed, with the stipulation that they cut their building costs by another 10 percent.
     Assistant Presiding Judge Brian Lamb for Inyo County was relieved, as his court hoped to build a two-room courthouse to serve the county’s population center in Bishop.
     “The 10 percent figure we think is readily achievable,” he said in an interview. “It will not materially affect the functionality of our design in Bishop. But we will continue to advocate for two courtrooms.”
     Two more projects planned for Los Angeles – in Santa Clarita and Glendale – were axed by the committee, though regretfully.
     Before the vote, Justice Candace Cooper said it was unfair to ask Los Angeles to choose which new courthouses it needed most, as some committee members had done at Wednesday’s meeting.
     “I had some considerable difficulties with respect to the entire discussion about Los Angeles,” she said. “I think that what we are doing with respect to Los Angeles appears to be in fact prioritizing their projects for them. I didn’t think it was appropriate then and I don’t think it’s appropriate now. The way the process has worked has boxed Los Angeles into a corner, I think unfairly.”
     “Let me be very clear,” said Justice Brad Hill, committee chair. “We are not boxing any court into a corner. We are assessing each project individually on the merits. An unwillingness to prioritize is not a negative and will not be held against L.A. or any court. Whether a court has five projects or one, we’re looking at each project on the merits.”
     Los Angeles Court Executive Officer John Clarke said he could not put one project ahead of another in importance and could not, as some committee members suggested, move the caseload for Santa Clarita or Glendale to nearby courts.
     “I cannot, as suggested yesterday, lose Santa Clarita and move the work load to other locations that are said to be close,” he said. “It’s not feasible given the caseload. There are some 85,000 cases there. We need both desperately.”
     The committee ended up saving the state $2.7 million over its target goal, but all approved projects must still be vetted by Justice Jeffrey Johnson’s cost-reduction committee, a sub-group of the court facilities working group.
     Hill said Johnson’s group might find enough money to build the Santa Clarita courthouse with additional cuts from other projects.
     “In six months we may have that money,” he said. “That’s why Justice Johnson’s committee needs to go through all of these.”
     Before voting on the audit of the construction office, committee members praised the AOC for taking on eight courthouse building projects within a short period of time.
     “They were asked to go from zero to 60 in a very short time,” said Judge Patricia Lucas of Santa Clara. “This meant that other, less critical objectives in the short term but critical in the long term were not addressed.”
     Lucas said the construction office’s Jan. 16, 2013 deadline to fix the problems pinpointed by Pegasus was too optimistic.
     Orozco said the Pegasus report should serve as a guide for building the office into an efficient organization.
     “Now we can go back and take the lessons learned and streamline our processes,” Orozco said. “Transparency is important.”
     Last week, the full Judicial Council elected to split the construction office into two divisions, one handling building projects and the other courthouse maintenance, in an effort to reduce confusion and inefficiency.

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