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Justice staff cuts in district court

 

By Michael Howell

Ravalli County District Court Judge Jeffrey Langton heard testimony for most of the day on Friday, September 23, in the case filed by Justices of the Peace Jim Bailey and Robin Clute seeking to halt the county’s plan to cut a clerk/receptionist position in each of their courts. Langton already granted a preliminary injunction preventing the layoffs, stating that the positions appear to be necessary for the operation of the courts.

On Friday, County Commissioners Matt Kanenwisher and Greg Chilcott defended the county’s decision to lay off the clerks. Chilcott testified that the county’s budgeting process had not changed from previous years. He said three years ago the commissioners’ made operational cuts of about eleven and a half percent in every department. Now, he said, with the county facing continued budget restraints there was no place left to cut but in labor.

Kanenwisher also defended the budgeting process with graphs and statistics, arguing that some other counties are handling more cases with less staff than Ravalli County Justices of the Peace. He stated that in his mind the cuts were reasonable and that the work could be absorbed by the other court clerks and the hardship possibly ameliorated by sharing some duties between the courts. He said the court’s workload had been on a downward trend for years.

Former County Attorney George Corn, who is handling the case for the Justices, concentrated on evidence that the Justice department was not consulted during the budgeting process and was kept in the dark about potential staff cuts until the last moment. His case rests essentially on the law requiring the commissioners to fund the court sufficiently to accomplish its judicial obligations. Both Justices Bailey and Clute insist that the elimination of the clerk/receptionist positions in each of their courts will cripple them and render them unable to function effectively.

Langton took the arguments under advisement and may issue a ruling this week.

2 Responses to Justice staff cuts in district court
  1. Lee Tickell
    October 1, 2011 | 11:25 am

    On Friday, 9.23.2011, at 9 AM, I attended the hearing in Judge Langdon’s court on cutting the Justice of the Peace staff by 33%. The Ravalli County budget for FY 2012 calls for cutting 1 of 3 staff from both Justice Bailey and Justice Clute’s staff. Based on the testimony presented, it is my opinion the JP Courts cannot function and serve the citizens of Ravalli County if these cuts are implemented. This hearing and the time and expense involved were unnecessary. Here we have the JP’s hiring counsel to ask the County Commissioners, represented by the County Attorney’s office in an all day hearing before the District Court. The taxpayers of this County are paying for all of this. You cannot make this up. The District Court, the JP court, the County Attorney, and private counsel, all suing each other over something that should not have happened in the first place. If the County Commissioners had done their due diligence and consulted with the JPs before making the decision of cutting the JP staff by 1/3, none of this would happen. Now the Commissioners (Kanenwisher and Chilcott) are trying to back fill and justify their bad decision after the fact. All of this was avoidable. Ravalli County has not established it is in a serious budget shortfall. Based on Freedom of Information Requests, the county has not provided the requested budgetary information to determine the extent to which there is a revenue shortfall.

  2. Lee Tickell
    October 1, 2011 | 11:24 am

    The RCWatchdog folks (http://rcwatchdog.org ) and perhaps other members of the press will be attending the session at 9:00 AM on Monday October 3, 2011 to oppose any closure of that meeting to the public under MCA 2-3-203. A clear reading of the statute indicates that it would be illegal to close this meeting when all of the parties involved are public entities. Here is the entire text of MCA 2-3-203, see (4) (b) –

    MCA 2-3-203. Meetings of public agencies and certain associations of public agencies to be open to public — exceptions. (1) All meetings of public or governmental bodies, boards, bureaus, commissions, agencies of the state, or any political subdivision of the state or organizations or agencies supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds, including the supreme court, must be open to the public.
    (2) All meetings of associations that are composed of public or governmental bodies referred to in subsection (1) and that regulate the rights, duties, or privileges of any individual must be open to the public.
    (3) The presiding officer of any meeting may close the meeting during the time the discussion relates to a matter of individual privacy and then if and only if the presiding officer determines that the demands of individual privacy clearly exceed the merits of public disclosure. The right of individual privacy may be waived by the individual about whom the discussion pertains and, in that event, the meeting must be open.
    (4) (a) Except as provided in subsection (4)(b), a meeting may be closed to discuss a strategy to be followed with respect to litigation when an open meeting would have a detrimental effect on the litigating position of the public agency.
    (b) A meeting may not be closed to discuss strategy to be followed in litigation in which the only parties are public bodies or associations described in subsections (1) and (2).
    (5) The supreme court may close a meeting that involves judicial deliberations in an adversarial proceeding.
    (6) Any committee or subcommittee appointed by a public body or an association described in subsection (2) for the purpose of conducting business that is within the jurisdiction of that agency is subject to the requirements of this section.

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