With Poulsbo out, will court move to City Hall?

As Poulsbo decided to end talks of co-locating the Bainbridge Island Municipal Court, the conversation shifted to the future as councilors suggested City Hall could be the court’s new home.

Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson attended the City Council meeting Wednesday to formally withdraw Poulsbo from negotiations. She said the annual lease rate of $51,000 will exceed the Bainbridge Island budget and that the City of Poulsbo is not willing to meet expectations proposed by Bainbridge Judge Kate Carruthers.

The Bainbridge City Council voted in December to move forward with lease negotiations to co-locate the court in Poulsbo. A joint task force of Poulsbo and Bainbridge officials started work in March 2010 to explore combining or co-locating court facilities and services.

The move was initiated by the two city councils as one of several ways to cut back on costs. But the suitability of the current Rolling Bay facility became an issue after concerns from both the Bainbridge council and Carruthers were expressed publicly.

Since December, the two cities have been in negotiations to co-locate in Poulsbo.

“I said repeatedly if this arrangement does not work to satisfy both communities it will not occur,” said Erickson. “It wouldn’t be a win for the City of Poulsbo.”

In addition to being unable to come up with rent under the Bainbridge budget, Erickson said comments made by Carruthers put Poulsbo in an “awkward position.” In a meeting with city officials and court personnel from both locations, Carruthers suggested there were deficiencies and safety concerns at the Poulsbo facility.

Erickson said she concluded it would be difficult to manage, control or mediate two different judges and personnel with two different opinions in a building that was built to house one municipal court.

“At the task force meeting, Judge Carruthers made it clear that she was opposed to the move and not willing to cooperate or make it work,” said Bainbridge Councilor Bob Scales. “Without full cooperation with both judges there was no way it would work. Now unfortunately our only option we are left with is to remain where we are.”

Councilors Bill Knobloch and Kim Brackett questioned the impartiality of the judge, who they say engaged in a “political” campaign to keep the court on the island, when it was her complaints about the inadequacy of the current facility that triggered the council to look for alternatives in the beginning.

Carruthers said the Rolling Bay facility was a security threat when she was lobbying for a new court and law enforcement building in late 2009.

Without the option of moving the court to Poulsbo, the Bainbridge council will have to consider its options on-island.

Knobloch said he would not support entering into a lease with the owner of the Rolling Bay facility where Bainbridge court is currently held. The city has a month-to-month payment schedule.

“I really feel that Rolling Bay is unacceptable and we have to find an alternative,” said Knobloch. “One of my preferences is City Hall.”

Knobloch said City Hall offers free rent, a convenient location for citizens and police and other amenities like the ability to hold court at night.

The council agreed to request Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer to gather information related to all long-term solutions for the court. Scales suggested the city hire an outside expert to evaluate all the options and conduct a cost-benefit analysis on each to examine costs, safety, court operations, convenience and accessibility.

Scales made a list of all potential options, which included: the current Rolling Bay facility, City Hall, the police station, a new court facility, co-locate COBI court with Poulsbo Court or contract the Bainbridge court to either Poulsbo or Kitsap District courts.

In the short-term, however, the court will likely remain in Rolling Bay. Scales made a motion to authorize Bauer to begin lease negotiations with Tord Vestman, owner of the facility. The motion passed 5-2 with Brackett and Knobloch voting no.

Mayor Kirsten Hytopoulos was concerned that moving the court to City Hall is hypocritical.

“I would love to say we could just move into City Hall but I don’t know that we could say this is a safer court room than what we have right now [in Rolling Bay].”

Members of the community have rallied in support of the Rolling Bay facility and presented their proposal on Wednesday to spend $30,000 in private donations to upgrade security features in the current building within 90 days of the city signing a new lease at no expense or responsibility to the city.

Island Realtor Jim Kennedy worked with Vestman to reduce rent by $11,000 to $24,000 annually. The city budget for court expenses in 2011 is $42,500.

Vestman agreed to a three-year lease with two-year option extensions. Kennedy assured the council that Vestman has no intention of terminating the lease or looking for another tenant. The construction will not have any unreasonable interference with court functions or security, and under the new lease terms the city is not obligated to remove the tenant improvements, Kennedy said.

“I think the court truly belongs in Winslow, but I just don’t know if we have the money right now. This is a less expensive option than Poulsbo, so I find myself asking what do we have to lose?” said Kennedy. “Everyone is on board, we simply need to convince the council that this is the right thing for the city.”

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