MENDOCINO COUNTY DA DAVID EYSTER is emphatically opposed to a new County Courthouse. Alone among the County’s elected officials in his opposition to the project, which would re-locate superior courtrooms four long blocks east of its present location, Eyster says the present Courthouse can be made perfectly serviceable, and for a lot less money than a new "glass box" in the already crowded hospital neighborhood on West Perkins.
THERE hasn't been so much as a squeak of concern from either the Ukiah City Council or the County Board of Supervisors at a proposal that would massively disrupt public and county business simply for the convenience of nine persons — the Superior Court judges themselves. They want new quarters, no one else does.
FORTUNATELY for the functioning of the County’s legal system not to mention the convenience of the un-consulted public, the new Courthouse project is presently stalled in its funding pipeline. But it's inexorably inching towards reality unless the formidable District Attorney is joined in an effort to stop it.
“I AM NOT a proponent of a new Courthouse,” the County’s top law enforcement officer declared Tuesday. “What you’ve been told is that the present Courthouse is a dangerous building because it is not earthquake-safe. In the last earthquate, as Napa was falling, this place looked out onto downtown Ukiah with no impact on it.”
The DA proceeded to systematically rebut the arguments for the new structure.
“OK, if it’s old, you can do some work to make it safe and workable. They say it's dangerous for security. I can show you how that can be fixed. The front the Courthouse is just plain ugly. I think that’s a selling point to rehab this building because the ugly front facade takes up a lot of space that can be re-done as A usable, attractive work area. The back side of the Courthouse is perfect and beautiful. And it is historically significant. The front of the Courthouse can be made beautiful, too.”
AN HOUR later the DA conducted us on a tour of the premises. As we walked, he made a convincing case for a major re-do of the existing old structure some of which goes back to Mendocino County's beginning. It's clear the energetic prosecutor has given a re-model a lot of thought.
“THEY SAY it’s not safe to move prisoners through the building shared with the general public,” the DA continued. “I understand that. We can talk about that. I’ll show you how that safety issue can be overcome.”
WHICH he soon did, explaining that a re-model of the School Street entrance to the building is eminently doable to funnel defendants directly into a holding area and the elevators up to the courtrooms.
THE ever-upwards cost estimates of the proposed new Courthouse?
“WHAT’S THE NUMBER” Eyster demanded. “$96 million, or has it been revised? It’s come down lately. It was around $120 million at one point. I’ll say we can do what I’ll describe for $91 million,” he laughed. “In the private sector if I said I could do this under budget I’d get a bonus of half of what I saved! I’m for incentives to get things right.”
Eyster was critical of the apparent desire of the County’s judges to enjoy their own facilities. Exclusively. The proposed structure would house only their courtrooms and chambers and staff. “The new thinking with the courts is, we don’t want to share public facilities with any other entity. When we close the door at night we don’t want anyone in our building.”
“AS YOU SEE,” Eyster said, referring to the unending bustle between the DA’s offices on the ground floor and the upstairs courtrooms, “we are constantly back and forth, up and down the stairs. We’re a workhorse operation — file it, get it here to there. It’s all on us. They [the judges] demand it all happen in a timely manner. We serve them.”
"If we have to shuttle up and down Perkins… Well, there goes the schedule."
THE DA pointed out the window of his conference room at the random sprawl of busy West Perkins Street and State Street, the heart of Ukiah.
“DOWN past Rainbow Ag and the new sports bar there’s the railroad station. On days like this — bright, sunny, cheerful — maybe it’s relatively easy for us to get 50 to 100 cases up and down Perkins without the files falling apart on the street. But last year when all the cats and dogs were falling out of the sky, explain to me the means of getting the cases down the street safely and whole. We’d have to have drying rooms for our files.”
The DA remembers receiving the sales pitch for the new courtrooms on Perkins.
“It was Henderson and Nelson in that order. [Both judges are now retired.] It wasn’t a conversation about what do you think about it, it was: We’re doing this. Good luck to you, our ship is sailing a certain course and we don’t even know if you have a ticket.”
DA media officer, Mike Geniella remembered, “One of them said we could have a golf cart system running back and forth.”
“AS I SIT in my office and watch State and Perkins,” Eyster replied, “I see lots of accidents. Golf carts running around downtown means there’s lots that can go wrong with that. This is an after-the-fact response to the judges' position of, This is what we’re doing. Ok, they said, you can help us by buying property down here for your offices. I don’t have that kind of purse, and the last time they discussed it with the County, they said no to any purchases of property for Courthouse offices. The County doesn't have the money, either.”
“ONE of the problems that this building has,” the DA conceded, “is asbestos. So we had an asbestos survey come in and they found some in our offices that we had to mitigate. Nothing significant. Experts came in from the Central Valley. They got it done inexpensively. None of the problems with this building are insurmountable, but the State Judicial Council says, We do what we want and you have to take it. They can do things by fiat.”
EYSTER points to Auburn's showcase Courthouse.
“IT looks like the old Courthouse that it is, but inside they have all the modern amenities; they incorporated everything into their old building. Knocking it down would have meant the loss of significant history. We can do that here. Look at the new courthouses around the state. They’re all glass boxes, designs that do not fit the character or history of this area. They make no effort to make their new buildings aesthetically pleasing. We already have enough things being pushed across Hospital Drive, and here comes a new courthouse? And the traffic coming off 101 at Perkins already backs up! The Courthouse only should have been moved if it was consolidated with a new jail. That's not happening."
DEPUTY CRAIG WALKER, appeared before the Board of Supervisors on a Tuesday morning in May of 2014 to make the following remarks during public expression:
“Good morning. Craig Walker appearing strictly in my capacity as President of the Deputy Sheriff's Association. You might be surprised that I'm here this morning not to talk about negotiations or money. Rather, We’d like to talk about an issue that we would like to take a stand on and we would welcome your participation as well. That would be the prospective new courthouse. I think everyone in the room is familiar with some of the well-known issues involved there and the impact it would have on the downtown should the courthouse be relocated. Although we share those sentiments, our organization is concerned about the county's potential exposure to costs that will be in our opinion forced upon us by the relocation. We are referring specifically to the idea that the proposed new courthouse would house strictly court employees and that the county employees who currently are housed within the existing court facility and nearby would have to travel that extra distance. We don't think that's a feasible alternative for the medium or long term. What we envision is the county being forced at some point to construct another building down by the new courthouse or lease space at substantial cost and that we would then be on the hook for maintenance of the old and abandoned facility and all of these things could easily run into the millions of dollars in cost for the county that the state, as far as we can tell, is not factoring into their planning. So for those reasons our organization is adamantly opposed to relocating the courthouse. We feel that some reasonable renovations to the existing structure could be made at a fraction of the cost. We realize that this project is being driven by the State Office of the Courts and not by the county and not by some other local agency. Nevertheless, we think that because of that ancillary exposure to the County and to the county employees that we really need to work together and oppose this project and we will be contacting the Governor’s office and the Administrative Office of the Court to express our displeasure and we would like to think that you would join us in that regard. Thank you.”
The Board did not inquire or comment on Deputy Walker’s remarks.
AT THIS POINT, the only way to get the Board of Supervisors to pay any attention to the New Courthouse Problem — which at this late date seems to be a done deal — would be for the DA to submit a “new courthouse budget” adding x-hundred thousand dollars per year to his otherwise well-managed budget to accommodate all the time, equipment, vehicles, and hassle he’ll have to waste ferrying work up and down Perkins Street.