Jeff Jardine

No ‘Queen for a Day’ among counties pleading for courthouse bucks

Back in the black-and-white days of television, a popular show called “Queen for a Day” pitted female contestants who moved audiences with their stories of financial and emotional hardships.

The winner, determined by an audience applause meter, found herself draped in a robe, a tiara placed on her head, a bouquet of roses in her hand and lavished in prizes ranging from vacations to appliances, often a washer and a dryer set. Indeed, queen of the day. The losers, of course, tried to mask their disappointment but went home with consolation prizes.

Granted, I’m sort of carbon-dating myself by admitting I remember that classic, but TV didn’t offer too many other options in the early 1960s.

The meeting of the Judicial Council of California’s facilities committee Thursday in San Francisco rekindled memories of that show. Why? Because it literally pitted representatives of 16 counties against each other as they pleaded for funding for their new courthouse projects even though they all knew going in that the money simply does not exist.

Among them were representatives from Stanislaus County, which is trying to build a $267 million courthouse to replace its current inadequate concrete bunker, and from Tuolumne County, where the beautiful 1898 courthouse building should have been turned into a museum long ago.

New courthouse construction is supposed to be funded through fines and fees extracted from the people who commit crimes and infractions. From the beginning, chairman Judge Brad R. Hill made it clear the committee’s plan is to press the pols in Sacramento to replace the $1.4 billion they grabbed from the court construction fund during the recession. Declining court fees, a statewide amnesty program that allows some people to pay reduced traffic fines, and other factors have helped deplete the fund.

Even so, commissioners spent more than five hours listening to a steady parade of speakers who detailed the shortcomings of their respective antiquated courthouses. Some made emotional pleas borne of financial hardship and their inability to meet their citizens’ needs.

Each began by recognizing the dilemmas each of the other counties faces. All cited security issues. As the day went on, the stakes increased. They proceeded to explain the importance of their projects, each representative adding a bit more emotion than the predecessor, as my stream of tweets from the meeting suggests:

A judge from El Dorado County told of how the air ventilation in the basement chamber is so bad that a stinky defendant caused her to pass out.

Glenn County officials said their 1894 courthouse is seismically unsafe and moldy. They also use duct tape to hold it together – another of the many uses.

An Inyo County official described a moment in the county’s elevator-less 1921 building when an amputee on crutches had to climb three flights of stairs to attend a court session. And he also told of how a mentally ill defendant somehow got an Uzi into the courthouse and engaged in a shootout with bailiffs.

Lake County officials said they have “no adequate courthouses in the county.”

Los Angeles County officials bemoaned facilities that contain asbestos and Americans with Disabilities Act issues, and said their facilities for mentally ill inmates are overwhelmingly inadequate. “Inhumane. … Housed in cages like animals,” an official from that county said.

Monterey County officials said residents from the county’s southern communities must drive 120 miles round trip for family court services.

A Sacramento County representative detailed how there is no fire suppression above the second floor, and that one court facility was cited by the fire marshal.

Santa Barbara County courts officials upped the ante by citing occasional flooding, mold and rats. When bringing inmates across the street to the courthouse, tourists take selfies with them in the background. And when tour buses once arrived, some tourists were “swept up into a pool of jurors” and were found sitting with them.

Siskiyou County officials told of how a defendant accused of sex crimes shot his female accuser and her husband inside the county’s 1857 building, which also endures raw-sewage backups and other problems.

Sonoma County officials dittoed security concerns and added another: termites. (Clark, they need you …)

When Stanislaus County’s turn came, Superior Court Judge Jack Jacobson talked about the security issues and overcrowding while court Executive Officer Rebecca Fleming showed slides of the blight created by vacancies on the block downtown where the new courthouse is supposed to go.

And finally, Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge Donald Segerstrom told of how a bailiff came to him on the third floor in the county’s 118-year-old elevator-less courthouse and told him a disabled woman was crawling up the staircase to try to reach his courtroom.

“We’re living in a courthouse from the 19th century,” he told the committee.

No doubt, all of these courthouses are falling apart and need to be replaced. None, however, reigned as “Queen for a Day,” though – not even Sonora, known as “Queen of the Southern Mines.” After recommendations that confused many at the hearing, Tuolumne County determined it can complete its plans up to the point of getting the state fire marshal’s approval, but can’t sell the bonds needed to build its new courthouse because there is no way to repay them at this point.

Stanislaus County can complete its courthouse design phase, but must stop there until further notice. Officials can’t even count on state funding to demolish the old buildings on the downtown site.

And the local counties are fortunate to continue at all. Progress on other projects in other counties stops cold.

Nobody got the robe. Nobody got the crown, the roses or the Maytag. No winners among them – just some counties who lost a little bit less than others. And nothing black or white about it.