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Judges plead their case for keeping court

Preserving Federal Way’s court, and restoring trust in its management, is in the best interest of residents.

That is what Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Dave Larson told the city council June 30. In May, the council began considering terminating the municipal court in favor of contracting with King County District Court. The municipal court’s history of managerial problems, as well as the council’s concern over liability risks associated with the court, spurred the exploration of court options. Tuesday’s special meeting was a chance for Federal Way’s judges to present their case for keeping the court.

“I’m pleading with you to help us heal,” Larson said.

Federal Way’s ability to control the court’s budget is essential, he said. Additionally, improving the municipal court will require the council and court staff to repair relationships and open the lines of communication, Larson said.

Playing it safe

with the budget

Cities that contract with the district court sign an interlocal agreement for services. They are respectively billed according to the number and type of cases the district court processes for each jurisdiction, said Barbara Linde, King County District Court chief presiding judge. The contract is a seven-year commitment with automatic five-year renewals, she said. It could offer expanded services to residents and slight revenue opportunities to Federal Way.

The deal is specious, Larson said. The city’s recent budget cuts, which were felt in several departments including the court, would not be permissible under a county contract, he said.

“(If) you don’t have enough money, you cut one of our clerks,” Larson said. “You have that power. You don’t have that power with the county.”

The city’s municipal court has a budget of $1,475,427 and predicts a case load of 33,500 for 2009, chief financial officer Bryant Enge said. The district court would charge the city approximately $1,732,000 to handle the same case load, he said. The city is saving roughly $256,573 by operating its own court, he said.

Outside input

In 2004, Issaquah performed a feasibility study — comparing the costs of establishing its own court vs. its county contract. District court’s services are exceptional, but come at a high price, said Issaquah court administrator Lynne Jacobs, a Federal Way resident. Issaquah adopted a municipal court soon after the study.

“We get to decide where our money goes,” Jacobs said.

Avoiding conflict

Still, a county contract is appealing to the council. Since the court’s establishment in 2000, the city has paid $152,587 in liability costs directly associated with the court, Enge said. The largest lump sums came in 2008-2009 in connection with a lawsuit filed against the city by the court’s presiding judge, Michael Morgan.

The city cited a responsibility to abide by the Public Disclosure Law and release a report on the court’s workplace environment to the media. Morgan claimed the report was court property and sued to keep it from the public’s eye. The state’s Supreme Court released the document last month. Tension between the city and court staff still runs deep. Under a district court contract, Federal Way would have been off the hook for the more than $90,000 in legal costs associated with the lawsuit.

“You’ve illustrated how we are between a rock and a hard place,” deputy mayor Eric Faison told Larson.

Keeping the court, as well as restoring pride and trust in the court, are crucial, Larson said.

“Every single one of us has to value doing right over being right,” Larson said. “We can’t have any more battle of wills. We can’t have any ‘us’ vs. ‘them.’”

He recommended a Law and Justice Coordinating Committee, with three citizen members, to encourage communication between the two branches of government.

Pompous attitudes must be left behind, he said.

“It’s not a decision-making body; it’s a communication body,” Larson said. “It’s something to get us over the hump — get rid of the personality issues.”

Council member Linda Kochmar said she wants to see everyone work together to overcome the court’s dysfunctional atmosphere. Faison, who originally suggested exploring a county contract, was not as easily swayed.

“Frankly, you mentioned pride and I think there is a lack of that (in the court),” he said.

The council will now decide what it wishes to do with the information gathered from the district and city judges. It is unclear whether the issue will appear at another city council special meeting or regular meeting, or fail to resurface.

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