The New Ukiah Courthouse (annotated)

(Ed note: The following sales pitch for a new County Courthouse by Judge David Nelson is annotated by Bruce Anderson.)

Plans for a new Ukiah courthouse at the old railroad depot site continue to move forward. In cooperation with the state Judicial Council, we will be constructing a modern, secure courthouse with eight courtrooms (for our eight judges and one part-time commissioner) to handle all case types, including criminal, civil, family, traffic, juvenile and probate. Improved security features will include separate hallways for the public, court staff and those in custody, adequately sized holding areas for in custody defendants, secure elevators from holding to the court rooms, and a secure sally port for their entrance and exit by vehicle to/from the jail. The three-story building will also provide adequate space for our 57 staff members as well as basic services including a self-help center, appropriately sized jury assembly and deliberating rooms, a children’s waiting room, family court mediation, and attorney interview/witness waiting rooms.

Ed note: All other ancillary services will remain in the present courthouse, requiring the DA, for instance, to shuttle back and forth from the center of town to the new structure three blocks to the east. The new courthouse will seriously harm central Ukiah's perennially struggling businesses. The project is "moving forward" despite no one other than the overlarge contingent of Mendocino County judges, nine of them for a population of roughly 90,000 people. The present courthouse is, however imperfectly from the judges' perspective, perfectly serviceable. This same cast of characters insisted on a new Courthouse for Willits which, after a mere two decades of use, is now abandoned. It, as the new structure, was and is a major eyesore.

THE PROBLEM

A new courthouse is needed for many reasons. The present courthouse consists of the original courthouse on School Street constructed in 1928 and an addition built in 1949. They are connected by corridors and stairways. The result is a dangerous building that is not functional in many ways. Renovation of the existing courthouse was investigated but the building is in such poor physical condition with severe safety issues, that renovation was deemed impossible.

Ed note: By whom? The new courthouse will cost upwards of $200 million. A portion of that could not have remedied structural deficiencies?

A primary problem is lack of security. Prisoners are dropped off in a public street outside the courthouse and walked in hand cuffs and chains through public hallways and up the one elevator that is shared with the public. When I was the juvenile court judge, I saw the juvenile offenders, who were by law entitled to a closed confidential hearing, being marched in cuffs and chains through public hallways. Jurors assembling in crowded hallways have violent felons passing through their midst. The mixing of inmate defendants and the public in the hallways of the courthouse is a threat to the safety of the public and court staff. This problem is not fixable by any secure elevator system because there is no sally port for entrance and all the courtrooms are spread out in different corners of the courthouse.

Ed note: Boo-hoo. Over the past 50 years there has been only one security scare, which occurred when a mommy tried to slip her murdering son a handgun as the son was being led into the courthouse. The judges create their own "security" problems by refusing to do most preliminary hearings and arraignments at the County Jail. It's time consuming and costly to be constantly ferrying prisoners back and forth from Low Gap Road to the center of Ukiah.

Another problem is a lack of access for disabled persons. The three court rooms in the old part of the building are not accessible to anyone with physical disabilities. There are 15 stair steps between a litigant and the juvenile and traffic courts.

Ed note: Please. Every public building in the country has been retrofitted to accommodate the handicapped.

Additionally, the existing courthouse is not safe in an earthquake. When the state took over control of the court facilities in 2003 they surveyed the courts around the state. They determined that our court house was a Level V risk, which meant retrofitting to current earthquake standards was not economically feasible. The recent Napa earthquake and its effect on its historic courthouse adds new meaning to the concern for an earthquake safe court house.

Ed note: No one and no building is safe in a major earthquake, not seen in Ukiah since 1906. Structures can also be retrofitted to make them stronger should a major quake occur.

SOME HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Courthouses and trial court funding used to be the responsibility of each county. Legislation in 1997 transferred responsibility for funding trial courts from the counties to the state. In 2002, the state also took responsibility for trial court facilities such as courthouses. The state Judicial Council studied all of the courthouses in California and prioritized those that were most in need of new facilities. A new Ukiah courthouse was high on that list. SB 1407, authorizing a $5 billion bond to fund critically needed courthouse construction, was signed into law in 2008. The new Ukiah Courthouse was one of the 41 projects to be funded by this bond. This project has no effect on the use of the Ten Mile Courthouse in Fort Bragg.

Ed note: Lawyers are always passing laws that benefit them. In fact, it was a legislative (mostly lawyers) swindle that saddled Mendocino County with so many judges. The County was adequately served by so-called lay judges for a hundred years. The lawyers passed the law that elevated all of Mendocino County's "lay" judges to superior court status with, of course, the lavish pay and perks they seem to assume as some kind of birthright. If a new courthouse was put on the Mendocino or even the Ukiah ballot it would not pass. It should alarm people that this project is "moving forward" with no public review, even from Ukiah's planning commission and city council.

The first step was to determine the best site that met the needs of the project. A Public Advisory Group (PAG) was formed to study possible locations for the courthouse. It included members of the court, the county, the city, our criminal justice partners, the chamber of commerce and the bar association. The group viewed possible sites and used a ranking procedure to determine the preferred site. A site as close to the historic courthouse downtown was a priority and two locations were selected as the top sites—the “library site” and the “depot site.” The library site proved unworkable and the PAG concluded that the depot site was the preferred site.

Ed note: A group of judge-friendly insiders chose one of two sites, and chose the only doable one. This was not a public process in any known sense of public process.

Discussions to purchase the four plus acres needed for the courthouse and associated parking were ongoing. The City of Ukiah had made it a high priority to keep the courthouse downtown and was going to participate in its development at the depot site using redevelopment funds. However, when redevelopment funds were terminated statewide, the city was forced to give up its option on the property. Negotiations for purchase resumed between the Judicial Council and the property owner, the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA).

Ed note: More insider baseball. The city of Ukiah was using redevelopment funds illegally, and of course, even on a city council dominated by incompetents, Ukiah understood that establishing a new courthouse far from the city center would further harm the city's ongoing effort to maintain a viable city center.

THE LOCATION & COST

The new site is three blocks from the old courthouse on Perkins Street. It is on a blighted parcel of land. The city has approval to extend Clay Street across the railroad tracks and into the project site. This will open up the corridor to the Grace Hudson museum and downtown on Clay Street. A bike path along the railroad tracks is being constructed which will connect the courthouse with the north and south ends of town. There will be other parcels available adjoining the courthouse site that would be ideal for offices that could house our county criminal justice partners. The Court is excited to contribute to the improvement of the depot area with the construction of a courthouse which has an estimated total cost of $94 million.

Ed note: The new courthouse will cost twice that, at least. The entire stretch of West Perkins between the freeway and downtown is a ghastly unplanned skein of empty unsightly structures. To get an idea of what the new courthouse will look like, google Placer County. It will be a glass, steel and concrete abomination akin to the aesthetic visual presented by the neighboring Macdonald's. 

Placer County Justice Center
Placer County Justice Center

 No offense intended His Honor, but the Democratic Party, of which His Honor is a stalwart, controls the railroad property. Not saying anyone in particular will benefit financially, but the Demos have no other option for it. The adjoining parcels will naturally become quite valuable and, one can be sure, the usual Ukiah sharks will profit mightily from proximity to their new neighbor. The bike paths linking the courthouse to north and south Ukiah are simply laughable. So? The repeat offenders who live along the tracks will benefit but no one else.

It is important to note that no General Fund dollars will be used for the construction of the courthouse. Construction will be financed by bonds. These bonds are supported by a revenue stream of court fees, penalties and assessments which were increased in order to ensure that these projects would be paid for from within the court system rather than drawing on the state’s General Fund or local taxes.

Ed note: There's really only one source of funding for public entities — US. By raising fines and the rest of the nebulous fees attached to the justice process, which of course hits working people and the destitute particularly hard, we'll get a kind of judicial spa for nine people, complete with underground parking, private elevators, lavish chambers and the rest of the monarchical trappings these pampered, privileged persons seem to think they deserve. This structure has nothing to do with service to the public, everything to do self-interested convenience and comfort.

The courthouse construction process was not immune from state budget cuts. Since 2009, $1.7 billion in court construction funds have been borrowed, swept to the General Fund, or redirected to court operations. Our project was subject to a review by the Courthouse Cost Reduction Subcommittee of the Judicial Council which achieved savings of nearly $24 million by eliminating a courtroom and the basement and reducing the overall size of the property acquired. It also reduced the number of parking spaces available on the parcel.

Ed note: This is a judge's idea of sacrifice and cost-saving.

The architect for the project is internationally renowned Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP. They have built award winning projects all over the world, including other courthouses in California. If the site is acquired in this fiscal year, the schedule calls for construction to begin in 2017 and completion in 2019. We look forward to the day we will have the new courthouse that our citizens deserve.

If you wish to know more about the construction of the New Ukiah Courthouse you can access further information at http://www.courts.ca.gov/facilities-mendocino.htm#tab13965.

Ed note: These people have erected major eyesores all over the country. At a minimum, a local architect might at least come up with a structure we could all be proud of. We'll get a version of the Willits Courthouse that will only further foul Ukiah, once a very pretty, coherent little country town. A big, ugly building will ensure that Ukiah remains forever a blighted freeway stop with its only redeeming public buildings left over from a better time early in the twentieth century.

Respectfully,

David Nelson, Presiding Judge,

Mendocino County Superior Court

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