Judicial Council Takes Fresh Try at Courthouse Construction Priorities

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Judicial Council of California has rearranged its priorities for 80 planned courthouse construction and renovation projects, after public comments came pouring in from communities around the state.

“For those in the state who wonder whether public comment really matters, public comment matters a great deal,” said Justice Brad Hill, chair of the council’s Courthouse Facilities Advisory Committee, at its meeting Tuesday.

The seal of the Judicial Council of California, the policymaking body of the California courts. (Photo the Judicial Council of California via YouTube)

Hill said the committee received a tremendous number of responses – over 300 pages’ worth – since the original priority list was released for public comment on Aug. 30.

“Quite frankly, there’s wealth of knowledge from around the state from members of the public, court executive officers and judges who can assist us with this process, and they did immeasurably in terms of suggestions.”

As in August, the courts were ranked in order of “Immediate” to “Low” need, with the categories “Critical,” “High,” and “Medium” falling in between.

September’s reshuffling was a boon for Los Angeles, which saw 11 of its projects move up in the rankings to immediate or critical need, while in August, its buildings had fallen overwhelmingly into the mid- to low-need category.

Overall, 14 court projects were ranked the highest priority as opposed to only four in August.

Mike Courtney, facilities services director for the council, said the projects were rescored after his team took another look at current building conditions, land cost and seismic risk.

“We may have identified some element of the condition of the building – say the roof is good – when in fact it was poor. That would result in a change to the condition assessment, which may result in a change to the score,” he said. “We also went back and re-evaluated the land cost we had in all of our construction estimates, and that affected the cost-based scoring. And in most cases, it reduced the cost of the project.”

Courtney said in some cases his team had initially overestimated the cost per square foot of land as well as the amount of land necessary, resulting in $500 million in savings for $13.7 billion worth of projects.

Seismic risk was a big concern for many courts. Courtney’s team rescored every project based on the risk to court users using standards set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The additional seismic points were awarded to the projects that had buildings that had a high or very high risk,” Courtney said.

Presiding Judge Wynne Carvill from Alameda County told the council he was glad the committee took safety concerns seriously.

“People should not be risking life and limb to go to a courthouse,” he said. “There are some courthouses that have some serious seismic issues, and I’m glad to see you’ve expanded the goal of that factor.”

But not all were happy with the changes. Pam Foster, head clerk at Inyo County Superior Court, said she was perplexed that her county’s courthouse, built in 1922, is deemed seismically safer now than it was a decade ago.

“I guess I should be happy that my building is somehow safer than it was in 2007, but I don’t think that was probably the case,” she said, calling September’s new list “a drastic reshuffling” that pushed her court from number 13 on the list to 28.

The council also saw an overwhelming number of comments Monterey County, which saw its planned South County courthouse drop even further in the priority rankings – from 45 to 52.

“Watching our project fall a little down the list with each go is a little disconcerting,” said Monterey County Supervisor Chris Lopez. “My district is the size of the state of Rhode Island and I don’t have a court facility in my district any longer.”

The local courthouse in King City was shuttered in 2013, and a new one was assessed by the council as an immediate need 10 years ago. Land has already been allocated in Greenfield, which has committed $10 million for the project.

“When we fall like a stone at the bottom of the list my community wonders what happened,” Lopez said.

Greenfield resident Stephanie Garcia said she didn’t understand why the priority has shifted from South Monterey County to building new facility in Seaside, where coastal residents already have ready access to courthouses in Monterey and Marina. “This project is significantly less than the proposed project in Seaside,” she said. “We’re talking $30 million versus $150 million.”

Greenfield, which has about 17,000 residents, is located roughly 33 miles south of Salinas. It’s a town populated by day laborers who are barely getting by. Most don’t have access to transportation, and if they do, they don’t have the time to drive two hours to the nearest courthouse along the coast.

“We truly have an access problem with our South Monterey County region,” Garcia said. “South County is a region of 100,000 residents. Many people in Greenfield and further south don’t have the ability to make that long drive, and if they do, they have to miss a full day of work.”

Hill, a former presiding judge in Fresno County, was sympathetic. “Coming from the Central Valley we’ve had the same concerns about access and the need to travel by folks who have limited means,” he said.

The committee will present the priorities to the full Judicial Council at its meeting in November, and its final reassessment is due to the Legislature by Dec. 31.

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