2012-07-26 / Front Page
Council agrees to pay to keep East County Courthouse in session
Despite making recent cuts to its own services, the City of Thousand Oaks will contribute $65,000 to keep the East County Courthouse in Simi Valley open part-time.
The City Council made the decision July 17 after listening to testimony from residents as well as court, county and Simi Valley officials all in favor of directing municipal funds to the struggling courthouse. Prior to the meeting city staff had recommended denying the funding request.
“I think Thousand Oaks has been a leader and we need to maintain that position,” said Councilmember
Andy Fox. “The reality is we’re very proud of our court system in the county.”
State budget cuts to California courts have left Ventura Superior Court with a $10.5-million deficit, forcing the system to consider closing its satellite facility at 3855- F Alamo St., its only location east of the Conejo Grade. To prevent that from happening, the City of Simi Valley is leading an effort to keep the courthouse open two days a week for two years while supporters try to secure long-term funding from the state.
The City of Thousand Oaks now joins the Moorpark City Council and the County Board of Supervisors in saying they will help Simi Valley provide temporary funding for the courthouse, which handles around 17,000 cases a year and costs $275,000 annually to keep open.
The Thousand Oaks City Council was asked to give $130,000 to help cover costs for two years, but agreed to pay for just one year.
Fox, who made the motion under the condition that the city would be reimbursed if the court resolves its money problems within a year, said municipal services are the council’s priority.
“There are a number of programs we are not funding that day-to-day help our community,” said Fox, citing cuts to the police department, library and city staff. “I think for us to fund a two-year program that likely may not get (its issues resolved) would not be in keeping with what our mission is.”
Mayor Jacqui Irwin was more direct.
“We have to remember what our core services are, and it’s not to provide court funding,” she said. Irwin said the compromise would allow the city to reevaluate the court’s financial status after a year.
“Access to justice is obviously critical to democracy, but we can’t keep taking over state functions,” she said. “I think it’s very reasonable middle ground to look after a year how close we are to obtaining (other funding).”
Councilmember Claudia Bill-de la Peña proposed a motion to fund the courthouse for two years with money from the Dos Vientos development fund, which is meant for capital improvement projects but could be used for other purposes. The other three council members rejected that motion.
“I think that a tremendous effort has been made to keep the East County Courthouse open and a two-year plan sounds like a viable plan in concept,” she said before voting. “Considering some of the other expenditures that we make, $65,000, while a lot of money, is something that the City of Thousand Oaks will be able to afford.”
Before the vote, recently retired Simi Valley City Manager Mike Sedell told the T.O. council members the situation with the courthouse is dire. If the county loses the 20-year-old facility, he said, all 800,000 county residents will be served by a single court facility—the Hall of Justice at 800 S. Victoria Ave. in Ventura.
Saving the Simi location, which was scheduled to close in June, would prevent longer wait times at the Ventura court, maintain public safety and save on law enforcement overtime costs, he said.
Simi Valley Councilmember Steve Sojka said the closure would leave “officers stuck in courts instead of patrolling the streets.”
Miles Weiss, chief deputy district attorney, said that cutting court services would not save money.
“You’re going to see costs come back to you in the form of overtime,” he said. “It would be much more efficient and effective to keep the courthouse open.”
The East County Courthouse currently has one courtroom open Mondays and Tuesdays for hearings related to traffic infractions, small claims, landlord-tenant disputes and some types of temporary restraining orders. The Simi Valley location also accepts court document filings for cases heard in either court.
Last month, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to contribute $100,000 over two years from its general fund to help maintain those services. Simi Valley has pledged $150,000 over two years and Moorpark agreed to $25,000, while Camarillo voted not to provide any funding for now. Oxnard will consider a request to give $60,000, and Ventura has been asked for $30,000.
Councilmembers Joel Price and Fox expressed hope that the council’s decision would move other cities to help maintain the courthouse.
“I do think (approving funds) will convince other cities to (participate),” Price said.
If the court fails to collect $275,000 from local cities, “it would be very problematic to make it work,” Sedell said.
William Schueberg, a local lawyer who specializes in landlord and tenant disputes, spoke against funding the court, saying most attorneys prefer to try cases at the Ventura location.
He suggested that attorneys and traffic officers could appear in the Ventura court via television conference to ease the congestion there.
“To appease the individuals who don’t want to see the Simi Valley court shut down there is a method of dealing with problem,” Schueberg said.