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Community helps its court discover security

Jim Kennedy took the lead and the city now has a secure municipal court. - Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo
Jim Kennedy took the lead and the city now has a secure municipal court.
— image credit: Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo

In short, according to the man who has led the charge to keep Bainbridge Island Municipal Court in Rolling Bay, the lengthy controversy involving the City Council and community has paid off because the island now has “one of the safest courthouses in the state.”

Hard to believe, perhaps, since not that long ago the presiding judge and nearly everyone else who had first-hand knowledge of the converted storage unit’s conditions had characterized the makeshift court as an extreme security threat.

As Jim Kennedy said, “It’s fortunate that there weren’t problems during all the years it’s been there.” He said that the employees had done the best they could with an impossible situation and can now feel more secure while doing their jobs.

Kennedy, a licensed attorney and real estate agent, said that about $42,000 in private contributions, including labor and materials, have been donated to the renovation project during the last several months.

The addition of a few ballistic--glass windows and some other upgrades will be finished by Sept. 12, Kennedy said, which would end the project one day before the 90-day deadline the City Council set for the project.

The council appeared ready at one time to move the court to Poulsbo, where it would have shared a courtroom in the new Poulsbo City Hall with that city’s municipal court. But the lengthy courtship between the two municipalities broke down in February when Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson withdrew from the co-location plan.

She said Bainbridge couldn’t afford the $51,000 annual lease rate and Poulsbo wasn’t willing to meet the safety demands made by Bainbridge Judge Kathryn Carruthers.

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

Which, considering the community’s overwhelming desire (800 residents signed a petition against the move) to keep the court on the island, turned out to be a reasonable location, according to Carruthers, Kennedy and many others determined to turn the building into a secure courtroom.

The action began when building owners Tord and Janet Vestman cut the monthly rent to $2,275, which was nearly half of what it was a year ago. Then Kennedy got involved with the effort, “primarily because I knew more about risk management than anyone else in our group,” he said. “I was the director of litigation for the State of New Mexico at one time, which included building and security issues.”

Since safety was the defining issue regarding the building, he said, it was obvious that solving the building’s security problems was paramount to keeping the court at Rolling Bay.

For example, defendants in custody and domestic violence respondents weren’t placed in separate rooms; the front and only door was unsafe; police radios didn’t function in the building; there were no interior or exterior security cameras; clerks weren’t screened off from the public or offenders; the security officer and defendants shared a space; unsecured chairs were used for courtroom seating (replaced now by large benches); the heating and cooling systems were inefficient and costly.

Now, the building is secure and with improvements, such as a ductless heating/cooling system, won’t cost the city as much to operate. The city, Kennedy said, hasn’t spent a cent on the rehab project.

The renovation also involved enlarging and reconfiguring the YWCA/Alive office, which wasn’t much bigger than a closet before.

“I think it’s just incredible that our generous community stepped up to improve a building that is being used as a public facility,” said Carruthers. “The whole thing is pretty amazing. I’m just thrilled and humbled by it all, especially that people would give like they did during a time like this.”

Carruthers had lobbied for years to address the court’s safety issues by having the city place it and law enforcement in a new building. The economy scuttled any hopes of that happening and the judge now thinks that was a blessing in disguise.

“In the long run it was important to learn more about the court and really take stock of the importance of having it here, at Rolling Bay, which is a unique community in its own way,” she said. “The whole process certainly made me appreciate more deeply having it where it is right now.”

While the outcome has been surprising, the city and the group that solved the problem are still at odds, at least until Kennedy emails the city manager on Monday to tell her the improvements have been completed in 90 days from the day of execution on June 13, he said.

The issue has been the absence of a performance bond, which the city wanted established at $30,000 at the beginning of the project. Kennedy didn’t think the bond was necessary, unless the contractors couldn’t deliver as promised.

“I see no need for a performance bond because we got it done in time,” he said. “So it’s really a moot situation and has been all along.”

In response, the city hasn’t paid rent for August and September. The city also took about two months to issue the building permits, Kennedy said.

“Basically, we’ve done the work in about a month,” he said. “And we’ll finish it this weekend.”

Carruthers said the renovations have made it possible for the court to stay in Rolling Bay indefinitely. (The three-year contract includes two renewal terms for two years each by the city.)

“We live in a different economic time,” she said. “The best solution is still to have law enforcement and the court in a combined facility, but it appears that’s not feasible now. But this facility meets our needs and we have no issue in accommodating the number of people who come to the court. So we’re here to stay.”

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