Mercer Island to hire help for busy municipal court

The Island’s municipal court will be hiring a new clerk to help the short-staffed department recover from a work overload as a sudden increase in cases has caused them to fall behind this past year.

  • Wednesday, October 1, 2008 5:21pm
  • News

The Island’s municipal court will be hiring a new clerk to help the short-staffed department recover from a work overload as a sudden increase in cases has caused them to fall behind this past year.

Since 2005, a judge and court administrator have been the only two employees working, but in recent years the court has seen its number of cases exceed 4,000 per year.

Two weeks ago, the City Council approved spending $20,000 to fund a court clerk position through the end of this year. City Manager Rich Conrad said he would recommend that the city continue paying for the position in its next two-year budget.

The Council will approve the 2009-2010 budget this fall. A presentation of the preliminary budget is scheduled for the next Council meeting on Monday.

The sudden increase in court cases has left the judge and his bailiff without vacation time and often without time for lunch. The backlog is the result of an increased number of parking infractions and other tickets, which jumped when the city hired a new police support officer in 2007 to enforce parking and leash laws.

“We are definitely busy,” said the court administrator, Josie Campos. “In order to keep up steadily since we opened in 2005, we’ve worked while we were sick, on our on days off and not had any vacation time.”

The city conducted a study which determined that the court department is seriously understaffed.

As of the end of 2007, there were 12,412 open cases, an 11 percent increase over 2006. Open cases primarily consist of deferred findings on traffic infractions, which remain open for one year, DUIs that remain open for five years and criminal cases that are open for two years.

Funding the position makes sense, according to the city’s finance director, Chip Corder, because the court’s revenues are projected to exceed the department’s operating costs by $91,000. The cost of the new position at about $60,000 to $65,000 would be easily covered, Corder said.

The Mercer Island court also serves the city of Newcastle, which pays Mercer Island about $4,000 a month for the service. Despite the low crime rate and relative safety of the Island community, the court has about twice as much work when compared to other cities in the region. In Issaquah, the number of cases handled in their court per full-time employee is 2.5 times less. Even by adding the new position, the Island’s staff will still see the most cases per employee compared to other cities.

Campos and the Island’s judge, Wayne Stewart, are on call with the Island’s and Newcastle’s police departments 24 hours a day. A judge must be present to get probable cause statements when there is a jail booking. Campos is a point of contact for the police in case they need assistance.

During the workday, the two were usually unable to take adequate breaks or get lunch, the study states. The two have also had to defer vacations or been unable to attend needed training.

“This will make a huge impact for us,” Campos said. “This will free me up to be able to do more training and things that are necessary to be in the position of court administration. For two court employees to process that much is showing a dire need for another staff member.”

Councilmember Mike Cero said he could see why a backlog in the court system had a negative impact on public safety. He said the cases initiated by the police department needed to be completed by finishing them in the courts.

“This puts our police force in line with our judicial force,” Councilmember Mike Cero said. “This is not meant to be interpreted as the police now having the ability to do more; they are doing everything they can. This just completes the criminal justice pipeline.”

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