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

public eye.

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

confidential meetings.

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

county level.

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