Courthouse site-selection process flawed, inefficient

By Union Democrat staff April 01, 2011 05:43 am
    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 work.
    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 counties.