Courthouse site-selection process flawed, inefficient
Union Democrat staff /
A new $70 million dollar courthouse will ideally be the centerpiece of Tuolumne County's planned law and justice center, off Old Wards Ferry Road near Sonora.
So it may come as a surprise to many that the state Administrative Office of the Courts, which determines the building's location, has not yet agreed to the county-owned site. Although the Board of Supervisors voted to buy the 50-acre center property in November of 2009, the state shortly thereafter began an exhaustive and time-consuming courthouse site selection process of its own.
Even now, the AOC "has a number of issues" with the Old Wards Ferry site and will likely not make a final decision until the end of this year. In December 2010, the county-owned site was recommended over two others - one on Sanguinetti Road and the other on Hess Avenue - in an evaluation completed by a local Project Advisory Committee.
But that was not the final decision: The three-site field evaluated by
the local committee, according to AOC spokeswoman Daisy Yee, will be
narrowed to two - the county-owned site and one other. Next, she said,
environmental work and property negotiations will begin, culminating
with a final decision by the end of the year.
Which gives rise to questions:
Why would the state spend more than two years evaluating sites here
when Tuolumne County previously did its own search involving dozens of
properties and spanning nearly a decade? The county also completed an
exhaustive environmental impact report examining a wide range of issues
and options before making its decision. County Administrator Craig
Pedro said the AOC's own courthouse location criteria were considered
in the process.
So, again, why would the state duplicate this costly, time-consuming process?
Granted, the board vote to buy the Wards Ferry property was 3-2 and
the site was controversial. But it was nevertheless a local decision
openly aired and debated at open meetings.
Now it seems like that decision is being second guessed by
Sacramento and San Francisco bureaucrats with little knowledge of local
geography or infrastructure.
Yes, the state has its own protocols to follow. But once its
required call for potential sites drew about a half-dozen candidate
properties, AOC should have relied on the work county officials had
already done to both narrow and speed the search.
"We pointed out that we could give them two file drawers worth of
information," said Pedro, adding that the state preferred to do its own
California has already budgeted $70 million in state funds for the
new Tuolumne County Courthouse. Still, it seems that streamlining the
site-selection process in a county that's already chosen its law and
justice center site would be an obvious decision - especially given
California's multi-billion dollar deficit and the projected cuts in
spending and services.
That the county center would include a new jail, juvenile detention
center and offices for the district attorney, sheriff, public defender
and California Highway Patrol poses another question: What sense would
it make to build the new courthouse elsewhere?
That the entire procedure is news to many of us is an another issue.
Although the state's site-selection procedure was not deliberately
hidden, neither was it well publicized or updated. Real estate agent
Shaun Crook, who represents the owners of one of the candidate
properties, was concerned that the process has taken place outside the
Indeed, the Project Advisory Committee met behind closed door and
the Board of Supervisors' updates came in secret session - because
property purchase and sale negotiations are legitimate grounds for
All this said, Pedro is confident that the AOC, after completing
all its research, "will reach the same decision we did and pick the
Wards Ferry Road site."
Which would spare us from a state decision that would not only be
embarrassing but would seriously undercut under the county's efforts to
centralize its law and justice offices, which grand juries for years
have criticized as both scattered and inadequate.
But even if the state and county finally agree, it doesn't take
away from the fact the state wasted many hours and many thousands of
dollars in a process that largely duplicated work already done on the
As budget pressures mount on all levels of government, this type of
inefficiency is a luxury we cannot afford. Cooperation and shared
effort should instead mark relations between the state and its