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Federal Way will keep municipal court

By JACINDA HOWARD

jhoward@federalwaymirror.com

The Federal Way Municipal Court will remain intact. But the city council hopes that needed changes will reduce liability risks and improve relationships between city and court personnel.

In a five-to-one vote, the council chose to keep the city's court rather than contract with King County District Court for services. Mayor Jack Dovey was the dissenting vote in the matter. Council member Jim Ferrell recused himself due to his employment as a King County prosecuting attorney.

The decision was made with the hope that adjustments in the court's management and communication with city staff and council will follow.

"I find it difficult to continue to tolerate the existing management of our court," Deputy Mayor Eric Faison said.

In June, Faison initiated the council's conversations on how it wishes to provide residents with court services. The local court has consistently been a topic of controversy among residents and news agencies this past year. Presiding Judge Michael Morgan sued the city in an attempt to prevent the public release of a report on the court's harassing workplace environment. Morgan lost the lawsuit and, in the meantime, was reprimanded by the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct — the agency that investigates judicial misconduct and has the ability to punish or censure a judge.

In 2008, the municipal court accrued $126,000 in liability costs, including those stemming from Morgan's lawsuit against the city, according to a presentation given Aug. 4 by Bryant Enge, the city's chief financial officer. An additional $66,511 has been amassed this year, according to the presentation.

"We wanted to find out exactly what the city's rights are in response to our court," council member Dini Duclos said. "It's safe to say our city wants to see this stop."

Costs, management structure and the range of court services, as they apply to the municipal and district courts, were also considerations in the decision. The council solicited information from district court representatives, city staff and its own municipal court judges.

In the end, local control and a sense of ownership offered by the municipal court outweigh the district court's extended services at the cost of price uncertainties.

"This is homegrown. This is ours and I want it to stay," resident Barbara Reid told the city council before its vote.

Council members Linda Kochmar, Jeanne Burbidge, Mike Park and Duclos agreed. They voted to keep the court. Prior to the vote, the council asked city attorney Pat Richardson if there would be any negative consequences to terminating the court at a later date. Municipal court judges David Larson and Morgan are up for re-election this year. The city would not be obligated to pay any sort of severance to judges if the council chose to discontinue its municipal court after the upcoming general election, Richardson said.

"We have the makings of a good court," Duclos said. "My hope is the community will elect the best people to run our court."

Kochmar suggested following a court improvement plan presented by Larson in late June.

"That's what it comes down to, communication, trust and transparency," Larson said.

Dovey said he voted against keeping the court because he believes the issue will resurface — and the council will be taking a future look at contracting with the district court.

"This has been a pretty interesting journey," Dovey said. "I've come to the conclusion that judges shouldn't administer a court."

Faison, whose term ends this year, said he voted to keep the municipal court, but hopes the city council does not lose sight of the issue.

"It's certainly my hope, as we move forward, that we'll have a change," he said.

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