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County auditor questions proposed changes to courtrooms

Wednesday, February 3, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners Court could not escape the first phase of its “Strategic Needs Analysis and Facilities Master Plan” without hitting what officials won’t call a hiccup but what could, nonetheless, present an issue for the planned downtown development as things move forward. Even so, the court has approved the first step in the process that may bring a downtown campus-style home for major portions of the Travis County government.


The morning started slowly, as Stephen Coulston of Broaddus and Associates (the contractors commissioned by the court to conduct the study), offered a quick review of his firm’s findings. Though there were a few tweaks to the report, Coulston noted that what the commissioners were seeing on their television screens was “essentially a review of a lot of information that (they had) seen before.” He closed his opening comments with a request for final approval of the phase one findings.


But as the discussion moved forward, it became clear that not all parties were completely ready to close the door on the assessment portion of the project. Travis County Auditor Susan Spataro seemed to surprise the room when she suggested that the court accept, but not approve, the sections pertaining to the Travis County Civil Court in Coulston’s report.


“The designs that have been suggested in terms of court rooms (are) really very different from what we do now,” she said. Spataro reminded the commissioners that the proposed new courtrooms would, in a radical departure, find Travis County judges sharing trial facilities, as opposed to having their own respectively designated benches. 


She added that it would be a good idea to have Travis County judges talk to colleagues who already work in a shared-courtroom environment so they could get a sense of how such a set-up works.


Spataro punctuated her argument by noting that the civil courts handle family law and that it is important to take those sensitive hearings into account. “Judges are very concerned — and they don’t have this now at all — that they have areas where they can work with children, and deal with them, and (deal with) those horrible situations as (best) they can,” she said.


She then asked for the time to arrange site visits at existing facilities that had been designed by Ricci Greene Associates — a courts planning firm that is also working on the project — and otherwise “allow them to do just a little bit more actual work on things that will be very different from the other operations here … and make sure that (the) concept is right.”


Consultant Christian Smith called Spataro’s input “helpful” and assured the Court that “the leadership with the judiciary has been working in some considerable detail with Ricci Greene.” He added that whether the report was “accepted or approved is less critical than recognizing that this is a work in process, that we’re not designing yet.”


After some back and forth about the timing of the public hearings that will be associated with phase two of the plan, the court further established the need for more review by the entire Travis County judiciary and came to a collective realization that none of the conclusions that they had heard Tuesday were “etched in stone.” Commissioners then voted unanimously to approve the first phase of the analysis. As part of the court’s action, the Travis County judiciary will have until April 1 to review the current plans. That date coincides with the public hearings on the project, which will be scheduled for February and March.


After the hearing, Spataro summed up her position. “They are looking at changing (something) that has been a tradition with judges for 150 years,“ she said, in reference to the switch from single-judge-dedicated courtrooms. “My thought is before you sign up for that, you really ought to go to a place that’s done that … and make sure that it does work the way you (thought it would).”


Her concern, she added, was that the court would “adopt something and … just (keep) moving on,” unable to change course where necessary. But, assured by both the court and city officials that changes could be made, and given two months for the judiciary to comment, Spataro said she was satisfied with the outcome of the hearing.


For his part, Smith called Spataro’s comments “unexpected” and noted that though members of the Travis County judiciary have “bought off on the information that was presented,” she had a point. “The auditor is right,” he said. “Sometimes there’s buy-off at 30,000 feet, and when you get down to the ground level, you go, ‘Oh, we really need a this’ or ‘We need a that.’ And she, I think, is essentially protecting the judiciary from being caught in a bind, and that’s fine.”

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