JARDINE: New Stanislaus County courthouse can't rely on secrecy

jjardine@modbee.comSeptember 14, 2013 

DN courthouse

(Debbie Noda/dnoda@modbee.com) - The current Stanislaus County Courthouse (4-12-11).

    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
    Recent stories written by Jeff
    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57
    E-mail: jjardine@modbee.com

— In theory, at least, a courthouse is supposed to be all about the truth, determined in public view.

It is where testimony is given under oath for all to hear, something so serious and important to our moral fabric that witnesses speak not only under the penalty of perjury but also the wrath of God.

All of the steps in these proceedings, from arraignment to verdict to sentencing, are open to the public in nearly every case. And the public plays a vital role in the process as jurors.

Several years ago, the state decided Stanislaus County needed a modern and high-tech courthouse – a brand-new house of truth.

The existing edifice on 11th Street downtown is so outdated and poorly designed that deputies parade murder case defendants across the halls in perp walks. Inside, the holding areas for defendants are precariously close to the judges’ chambers. There aren’t enough courtrooms because as the county grew over the past five decades, more people brought more crime, arrests and trials.

Outside, it’s difficult to conceive of an uglier building. Look closely and you’ll see the imprints of the 4x8 plywood sheets used to form the exterior walls roughly five decades ago.

You’d think building a courthouse would involve some of the same principles and tenets that are the foundation of the court system itself, meaning public access, involvement and, well, truth. After all, we are supposed to be the country of open government, right?

Guess again.

As The Bee has reported, taxpayers are being barred from the entire process except for, of course, the taxpaying part.

The state exempted itself from disclosure even though the Administrative Office of the Courts website assures us, “The Judicial Council and the AOC are committed to maintaining a transparent, consistent and accountable procurement system ... .”

City officials in Modesto, meanwhile, decided you have way too much stress in your daily lives to worry about their wheelings and dealings to acquire the land at the chosen new courthouse site – the block bordered by H and G and Ninth and 10th streets downtown.

The irony is that the state attorney general opined two years ago that a city can’t conduct all of its real estate dealings in closed sessions. Wait ... go back up a couple of sentences. Didn’t the state exempt itself from soliciting public input on the courthouse project?

“It’s hypocrisy,” said Kristin Olsen, a former Modesto City Council member now serving in the state Assembly.

Both Olsen and state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, will tell you governments at all levels are doing way too much business behind closed doors.

Why? Because government is allowed to. Because apathy permits secrecy. Because only a handful of regulars routinely speak at Modesto City Council meetings. Because voter turnout in anything other than a presidential year hovers around 30 percent at best.

Which means that when the citizens aren’t paying attention, government becomes a private club. A vocal, informed public does make a difference, Cannella said, citing Modesto Irrigation District’s proposed sale of water to the city of San Francisco. The board nixed the sale in no small part because of the push-back from residents and ratepayers.

“When people get energized and hold (officials) accountable, amazing things can happen,” Cannella said.

They have to know about it first, though. While hardly perfect, MID’s board discussed the proposed sale during open meetings from the get-go.

It hasn’t been that way at all throughout the courthouse process. If not for the reporting of The Bee’s J.N. Sbranti, residents would know nothing at all, just as they were unaware of the city’s handling of the Archway Commons apartment complex – costing taxpayers $276,000 per unit and overpaying for some properties while low-balling a church – which Sbranti also reported.

The same city government that tried to confine its opinionated brethren to a free-speech zone painted on the sidewalk at the Transportation Center downtown now wants your trust on a sales tax that proponents hope will be used to restore lost police and fire positions and some other services due to the economy.

Yet officials don’t want your opinion on the courthouse land grab even though the attorney general says the city can’t deal completely in private.

It must operate with transparency – you know, like the Administrative Office of the Courts. And therein lies the problem.

They are both very transparent when it comes to shutting the people out of the process. In fact, you can see right through them.

Want the truth about the new courthouse? Don’t let them tell you it’s none of your business.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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