2006-06-15 / Front Page

Jamestown gets okay for a municipal court

By Dotti Farrington

Jamestown becomes the 24th of Rhode Island's 39 cities and towns to be authorized to run its own municipal court as the result of action last week by the state General Assembly.

State Rep. Bruce Long (RJamestown, Middletown) reported at Monday's Town Council meeting that the enabling legislation for the court he and state Sen. M. Teresa Pavia-Weed (DJamestown, Newport) guided through the House and Senate had been approved.

The council expressed appreciation for the legislators' work. The councilors did not discuss a timetable for forming and staffing the court. The municipal court would act on enforcement of local ordinances now handled by Newport District Court. Municipal courts in most other communities generally hold sessions from once a month to once a week. No plans have been made for the municipal court to have authority over traffic violations, now processed by the state Traffic Tribunal.

Municipal courts are seen as expediting cases and reducing court time for police officers and other town officials who have to testify in cases. It is one more measure to which town officials are looking to curtail legal costs, which this year are nearly $26,000 over budget, according to the latest summary of town expenditures.

Last week, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said he plans to review the operation of other municipal courts in the state. He has been assigned by the council to determine what town building will be used for municipal court proceedings.

The town budget that goes into effect July 1 includes $15,000 to set up and operate a town court with a part-time judge and office worker.

The expectation is that the court would be self-sufficient, funding itself through fines and fees. Penalties of up to 30 days in jail and fines up to $500 are authorized for the town court, with appeals to the state courts possible.

Early this year, Keiser said that he had seen the success of the municipal court in Narragansett, and he had seen the disadvantages of not having such a system in South Kingstown, when he was an official there. He said some cases, especially those involving zoning issues, took years to resolve without a municipal court.

Keiser said a municipal court enables better enforcement at the local level.

The council voted several months ago to seek the authorization for a municipal court to help cut down on costs to pay town personnel who were required to be on standby in Newport courts for hearings on local matters.

Police Chief Thomas Tighe, who has served as interim town administrator twice in recent years, said he expected that the court would provide significant cost benefits. Associate town solicitor Lauriston Parks prepared the draft for the legislation, as authorized by amendments to the town's Home Rule Charter adopted by voters in 2002. The town charter allows for a municipal court. It also allows for the Town Council to appoint a lawyer without any other town position to be a municipal judge.

As sought by the town, the court could hear and rule on violations of any town ordinance or municipal code, especially zoning matters, animal-control regulations, parking rules, and minimum housing matters.

In addition to dealing with penalties for violations, the municipal court has the power to restrain, prevent, enjoin, abate or correct violations, Parks said. His plan noted that the council's appointee as municipal judge would serve a two-year term concurrent with the term of each appointing council. The town is not obligated to establish the court even if the state legislation were adopted, Parks had pointed out.

He said the court would produce revenue for the town in that the town would be able to keep fines now sent to Newport District Court. "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. He said it would add convenience and speed of action, as well as a revenue stream for the town.

Tighe said need for a local court has been seen for some time. He noted that last year Jamestown generated $11,056 in parking fees that were paid and $3,655 that were due. He said it will be easier to collect fines through a municipal court.

Tighe said he expected that some overtime would be eliminated for officers who now have to sit in Newport District Court waiting for case dispositions. The municipal court could schedule night sessions, making it convenient in another way, Tighe added.

The local court concept had been discussed intermittently over the years and resurfaced while Tighe was serving as town administrator last winter.

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