Presiding Judge Russ West says pillars in the Union County courtroom make it easy for defendants to hide. An agreement under way with the Oregon Department of Justice will allocate funding for a new Union County court facility. (PHIL BULLOCK/The Observer)
Courthouse construction could start in fall; facility to address safety, access issues
On a day in 1993, Brian Dretke had just finished up his first day as a lawyer — as a Union County deputy district attorney. He was about to leave when Russ West stopped him and told him he wouldn’t be going home. Instead, they would be making cold calls to garner support for a bond levy for a new Union County court facility.
Measures to pass a levy in 1993 and in 1994 both failed, but the hope for a new facility never waned.
Two decades later, that dream is finally becoming a reality. Union County officials announced in August that the state would help fund a $3.1 million courthouse.
“We are still negotiating a contract with the Department of Justice,” said Union County Commissioner Bill Rosholt. “Once that contract is agreed upon, the funds will be distributed.”
As a result of the last legislative session, the county will receive about $2 million to move forward with the project. Officials said in August that the county would borrow about $750,000 and pay the remaining balance.
While construction likely will not begin until late summer or early fall of this year, county court staff and officials are glad the ball is rolling.
“We’re looking forward to the project,” Rosholt said.
A location isn’t set in stone, but officials are eyeing a spot between the Union County Law Enforcement Building and Shelter From the Storm.
The location, however, is less important than the facility itself. For years judges and staff have worked in an awkward setup in the old Joseph Building. Pillars in the courtrooms make it easy for inmates to hide from the judges.
“It’s the most popular seat in the courtroom,” said Judge Dretke, pointing to a spot directly behind a pillar. “It’ s just an unwieldy courtroom.”
Judge West says the pillars are a big problem, especially during jury selection when attorneys need to make eye contact with potential jurors.
Another concern is the route inmates must take through staff areas because of the setup of the courthouse.
“Just because he’s in handcuffs doesn’t mean he’s safe,” West said. “Our staff just isn’t safe in the current facility because it just isn’t secure.”
In addition to strangely configured courtrooms, the judges say jurors are crammed into uncomfortable spaces.
Trial Court Admnistrator Michelle Leonard has dealt with these issues since the court moved into the building after the old courthouse was condemned. The biggest issue she notes is the fact that her staff is separated — some are located on the first floor with criminal records while others are on the third floor at the civil desk. That makes access to each other difficult.
“That’s been a big issue — internal support,” Leonard said. “We work really hard at communication because of the geographical challenges.”
There is not always an easy way to get from one area to the other without going through the courtrooms. Oftentimes the staff will walk outside and around to the other entrance, or go through a “secret passage” through the attic.
And though the staff may be used to inmates being led through staff areas, it’s not an ideal situation.
“Sometimes I feel uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t say I feel unsafe,” Leonard said. “I feel there are times when (the staff) have felt uncomfortable as well.”
Leonard, who has worked for the court for 27 years and as a manager for about seven years, says the new design, which isn’t in the works quite yet, will need to take into consideration the “three Ps: public, prisoner and private,” meaning staff don’t share bathrooms with inmates and there is a safe route to get inmates in and out of court.
The new facility will house two courtrooms, judges chambers, jury rooms and office space. After lobbying the Legislature, testifying before the Legislature and now getting an agreement together with the state, officials are relieved and excited to get a new home.
“We feel like we deserve this,” Leonard said.