OAKHURST – Judges, attorneys and interested citizens gathered last night at the Oakhurst Community Center to discuss the impending closure of the Bass Lake Courthouse.
Though everyone was there to voice their opposition to the loss of the courthouse, it was apparent early on that the decision was final and would not be changed.
Madera Superior Court Presiding Judge Joseph Soldani who, along with Court Administration made the decision to close the courthouse, said that the security issues with the building leave them with no other choice.
“There are issues with the way the courthouse is laid out; the windows, the access, the lack of holding areas for those in custody, the proximity of the jury box to the parties… it’s just not a safe situation. It’s not safe for the people who work there, and not safe for the folks who come into court to have their cases heard. It’s as simple as that. And we are going to close it November 30.”
Judge Soldani said that the Court has had a lot of input from the community and that they do not take this decision lightly.
“I don’t think there’s anything that’s been communicated to us that we were not aware of at the time we made the decision. It’s an extraordinary inconvenience and hardship on the folks up here; we understand that. It’s important to us, just like it’s important to you. But when you come to the point where you realize that it’s no longer a safe facility, you have to close it. I’m sorry.”
Soldani said that the Court has reached out to the California Judicial Council and to Madera County for funding to upgrade the building, but that none is available.
“One thing we’d like is to let those folks know we have this need, and that the people up here are being shortchanged. Let’s put some pressure on them to come up with some funds to correct this.”
The Bass Lake Courthouse was built in 1974 and served as a municipal court, handling such things as small claims and traffic infractions. But in 1998, California voters passed Proposition 220, allowing counties to merge their municipal and superior courts into a single, unified superior court. By 2001, all 58 counties had unified, including Madera County.
According to Judge Dale Blea, an Eastern Madera County resident who will begin serving his term as Presiding Judge in January 2019, the Bass Lake Courthouse was never designed to handle the security issues inherent in jury trials and contentious family court issues.
“We’re not talking about a few thousand dollars to fix the problems with the courthouse; it would take millions to get the building into the condition required for the safety of the staff and the public,” said Judge Blea.
He referred to something called “ballistic lath” that would need to be added to the structure, and that the building would not support the weight.
“The Judicial Council has said that the only way to deal with that building is to knock it down and start over. We don’t have the money to do that.”
Judge Blea also addressed the supposition by some that no Madera Superior Court judges are willing to serve at Bass Lake.
“That is not true,” said Bela. “Numerous judges have expressed an interest and a willingness to sit in Bass Lake.”
Both judges said they have been working with the County to mitigate the inconvenience of the closure, including adding express routes for public transportation that would arrive in time for jury service, leave at a convenient time, and take people to a stop at Courthouse Park rather than the bus station.
Another plan in the works is to implement more “video remote proceedings.”
“We’ve been using video remote proceedings for many years, but it has been limited to in-custody arraignments from jail or prisons,” said Blea. “We could expand the process into other proceedings.”
Judge Blea said that he has been talking to judges in Fresno County, where this type of system has been working as part of a pilot program.
“It works very well and very effectively, and I don’t see why it can’t work effectively here. Traffic infractions, small claims, and limited civil matters lend themselves very well to that type of proceeding.” There was mention of some space being available at the Sheriff’s Substation in Oakhurst.
Members of the audience expressed concerns about the increase in traffic on Highway 41, especially with the many elderly residents of Eastern Madera County. However, the judges said they could only deal with the safety issues of the building itself when making the decision.
Manuel Perez, Chief of the Madera County Department of Corrections, noted the security issues faced by his staff both in moving prisoners into the courtroom, and in securing them while they await their appearance.
“We must adhere to certain standards with regard to the treatment of prisoners,” said Perez. “When you have only two holding cells and you’re transported twelve prisoners, you sometimes have some of them sitting out in a van in 100-plus degree temperatures. Drinking water and restrooms are a big issue. Also there are no fences, which presents a risk not only to the staff, but to the community.”
Several attorneys raised the issue of the many trips to court that must be made in certain types of cases, and the extra expense that would be incurred by clients. Judge Blea said that within about year, people will be able to take care of most things online.
As to the issue of jury service, Judge Soldani pointed out that for those living in Coarsegold and YLP, the trip to Madera is actually safer than traveling over Deadwood and Chepo Saddle in winter weather. The fact that most mountain area residents currently get a jury summons for the Madera court means that “you’re already going to Madera for jury service” as the Bass Lake Court averages less than two jury trials per year.
No one is abandoning the idea of someday having a courthouse in the mountains again, but that will take time and lots of money. With $100 million spent on the new courthouse that opened in Madera in Sept. 2015, it appears unlikely that the State will fund a second courthouse in Madera County any time soon.
In the meantime, Judge Soldani and Judge Blea are adamant that the closure was not something they wanted and that they will continue to work on lessening the impact on mountain area residents.
“We’re working to address the inconveniences and to minimize them as much as we can,” said Judge Blea. “If there’s anything that can be done beyond what we’re doing, I assure you, we’ll do it. But as to the current situation, we don’t want to have something bad happen and then have to say we knew there was a problem and did nothing about it. We don’t want to create more victims.”
District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler said that the County – which owns the building – will continue to work with the Court to find solutions, but that the Board of Supervisors has not had time to address the situation. The Building Department will remain open in its current location as the Board investigates other options in the mountain area.
Though the Court said that the County administration had been notified early on, Wheeler says he found out the same way everyone else did – “someone sent me a picture of the closure notice on the building.”