Town seeks legislation to create municipal court
With little discussion, the Town Council Tuesday approved a draft for a state legislative act that would allow the town to create a municipal court.
Such a court would provide significant cost benefits, according to Police Chief Thomas Tighe, who has served also as the town’s interim town administrator.
Lauriston Parks, assistant town solicitor, prepared the draft. It was authorized by amendments to the the town’s home-rule charter adopted by voters in 2002. The charter allows for a municipal court and for a lawyer, without any other elected or appointed town job, to be appointed municipal judge by the council.
The council this week assigned Parks to follow up on the proposal with state Senate Majority Leader Teresa Paiva Weed (DJamestown, Newport) and state Rep. Bruce Long (R-Jamestown, Middletown) for its enactment and implementation.
The council assigned new Town Administrator Bruce Keiser to determine what town space would be used for the municipal court.
As drafted by Parks, the act would establish the court to hear and rule on violations of any town ordinances, municipal codes, animal regulations, traffic and parking rules, and minimum housing ordinances. The act defines the rights and limits of appeals to the superior or district courts from convictions by the municipal court. In addition to dealing with penalties for violations, the municipal court would have the power to restrain, prevent, enjoin, abate, or correct violations.
The draft provides that the council’s appointee as judge would serve a two-year term concurrent with the term of each appointing council. The council would have the authority to enact rules on court personnel, operation, and procedures, including setting fees and costs. The court would deal with penalties of up to 30 days in jail or fines up to $500, or a combination of such penalties of jail and fines.
Parks told the councilors that several of the state’s 39 cities and towns have municipal courts, with the two most recently approved being for Exeter and Lincoln.
The court proposed for Jamestown “is essentially the same as the others,” Parks noted.
He said that the town is not obligated to establish the court even if the state legislation is adopted.
Parks said the court would produce revenue for the town because the town would be able to keep fines now sent to the Traffic Tribunal and District Courts. “It would be much more convenient for town officials to enforce ordinances and regulations, and not have to sit and wait in Newport courts. A local court also would be more effective because the district and superior court are not particularly interested in or have meaningful knowledge about such matters as local violations and their impacts on our community,” Parks said.
In response to councilors’ questions about “downsides” or “reasons not to do it,” Parks said there are no negative aspects of establishing a municipal court.
New Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, who was second in command in South Kingstown until coming here this week, said that he had seen the success of the municipal court in Narragansett. He said he had seen the disadvantages of not having such a system in South Kingstown. Some cases, especially involving zoning, took years to resolve without a municipal court, he said.
Keiser suggested that a municipal court enables better enforcement at the local level. He said he would prepare a cost benefit analysis with projected net costs.
Parks pointed out that a municipal court will add convenience and speed of action, as well as a revenue stream for the town.
Tighe supported the plan and said that need for a municipal court has been seen for some time. He noted an example of such a court in Tiverton, where the judge is paid $12,000 a year to conduct court sessions twice a month.
Tighe reported that last year Jamestown generated $11,056 in parking fees that were paid and $3,655 that are due. He said it will be easier to collect fines through a municipal court. He also noted that animal fines last year totaled about $2,500.
He expected that some overtime would be eliminated for police officers who now have to sit in district court, waiting for case dispositions, Tighe said. The municipal court could schedule night sessions, making it convenient in another way, he added.
Parks noted that he did not expect any problems in obtaining legislative action from the state General Assembly on the municipal court proposal.