District attorney joins opposition to Modesto courthouse site

10/15/2013 6:22 PM

10/15/2013 10:26 PM

Stanislaus County’s district attorney wants Modesto’s new courthouse built on I Street, and she has safety concerns about the state’s plan to move the location to 10th Street.

Birgit Fladager has emailed the director of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, outlining her objections to the location selected for the $277 million construction project.

“I absolutely believe that the I Street site – where The Modesto Bee is currently located – is the much better location from the perspective of the District Attorney’s Office,” Fladager wrote in her message to retired Judge Steven Jahr, who will have final say over where the courthouse ultimately gets built.

The email adds Fladager’s voice to the growing controversy over where the courthouse should be built. The first public meeting on the issue is planned Tuesday in Modesto.

In the spring, the state picked the block between 10th and Ninth streets and G and H streets as the preferred site for the project. Modesto government agencies own more than one-third of that block, and city officials have been doing all they can to get the courthouse built there.

The alternative site, which the state named as its second choice, is the block between 13th and 14th streets and H and I streets. That’s where The Bee leases office space. The newspaper’s office faces H Street, but the front of the proposed courthouse would be on I Street.

“Our primary concern is the safety of our victims, witnesses and staff,” Fladager noted in her email. She said The Bee site is one block from the district attorney’s 12th and I street offices, while the other site is more than three blocks away. “A closer location obviously reduces the risk of possible harm to individuals traveling back and forth to the courthouse.”

Fladager explained, “Our attorneys go back and forth to court with rolling briefcases filled with files.” Because 40 lawyers or more may need to get to the courthouse each morning in all kinds of weather, she said her office might have to “provide shuttles back and forth,” which could present a significant challenge.

The district attorney isn’t alone in questioning the wisdom of moving the courthouse to 10th Street. During the past month, several community leaders – including Ray Simon, retired federal Judge Frank Damrell and Marie Gallo – have rallied support for building on I Street instead.

Fladager said Damrell encouraged her to make her courthouse preferences known.

“I’m trying to stay out of the political fray,” Fladager told The Bee. She said it’s important for a new Modesto courthouse to be built because the current one “is breaking down,” and she doesn’t want to do anything that would derail the project. But she wanted the state to “know what’s best for us and why.”

State court officials confirmed Tuesday that the courthouse property must be purchased by June 2015, or new authorization would have to be sought and there’s no guarantee the money would be reallocated to Modesto.

With 20 months left to close the land deal, Simon said a comprehensive effort is being launched to convince state and city officials to keep the courthouse on I Street. Simon, a former longtime member of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, said several dozen prominent community members have signed a letter supporting the I Street courthouse site.

“There’s a lot of stuff we want to ask them,” Simon said about how state and city officials decided 10th Street was a better location.

He’ll get his chance Tuesday, when Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh said the City Council will discuss the courthouse in public for the first time.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts also will have a representative at that meeting, The Bee was told Tuesday.

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