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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 5, 2009

Should Guilderland have a third judge?

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — The town board is divided on whether to add a third part-time judge to its court.

While the Democratic Supervisor, Kenneth Runion, favors the move, the Republican council members, Warren Redlich and Mark Grimm, said at Tuesdays town board meeting they want to see more statistics from Guilderland’s court as well as compare the numbers to other local courts with two judges.

The Guilderland town court was recently ranked third in Albany County for the volume of criminal cases handled each year, and 45th out of 1,250 in New York State for the amount of revenue generated.

With two part-time judges, Denise Randall and John Bailey, handling almost 12,000 cases a year, George B. Ceresia Jr., the Third District Administrative Judge, has recommended that Guilderland elect a third judge.

“The perspective in court is to make sure justice is administered, and there’s a major concern that justice might be at risk with this volume,” Bailey told The Enterprise this week. “A case requires more than 60 seconds,” he said.

Bailey said that it has never been suggested that things have gone wrong in the Guilderland court, but added that a third judge would provide relief from the fear that justice could be compromised. Bailey believes the addition of a third judge would provide flexibility and actually result in cost reductions by reducing overtime.

The New York Times published a series of articles about shortcomings in town and village courts, after which the Office of Court Administration gathered information on all the town and village courts in the state.

In December 2008, after statistics were gathered, Ceresia sent a letter to Runion, making him aware of Guilderland’s rankings and suggesting that a judge be added to alleviate the burden on the two existing judges, and improve the efficiency of the system.

Ceresia cited the high volume of cases handled each week; some 200 traffic cases on Monday nights, and between 160 and 200 criminal cases on Thursday nights. Ceresia also cited the complexity of the cases; one reason for the high number of criminal cases is Crossgates Mall, where Guilderland Police make frequent arrests for petit larceny.

Runion told The Enterprise that usually a town population of 50,000 is “the magic number” for setting up a third judge. Guilderland’s population is about 35,000, but, said Runion, Crossgates makes the difference. He cited Colonie having three judges, because of the malls there with regional draw.

During the board meeting, Runion stated that the third position would cost the town, at most, $56,000 each year. Bailey and Randall each have a salary of $42,000 per year. Runion also said the addition of a third judge should not affect the budget because the increased efficiency would move cases through the court at a faster rate, thereby increasing revenue. Redlich expressed concern over the costs of court staff needed to support a third judge.

Runion said that he envisioned the third judge holding a court session during the day once weekly, while Randall and Bailey each hold two night sessions every other week. In this case, said Runion, court staff employed during the day would be able support the third judge, eliminating the need for hiring extras.

Redlich told The Enterprise this week that he completely agrees the Guilderland court is over-crowded. However, he does not agree with Runion’s assessment that the addition of the third judge would not affect the budget.

“The current daytime court staff must be employed for a reason, and if they are used to support the third judge, they will be taken away from their regular jobs,” he said. “I believe adding the position could cost the town up to $100,000 per year. We’re not sure of the fiscal situation down the road, so where would that money come from?” Redlich wanted to know.

Redlich also had some suggestions on how to make the court run more smoothly, without electing a third judge. Some of those suggestions included resolving more traffic tickets by mail, staggering the court times for individuals coming in for traffic tickets on Mondays, and holding pre-trial conferences.

Redlich also mentioned at the board meeting that courts like those in Bethlehem and Clifton Park generate a greater revenue than Guilderland each year, yet manage to function with two judges. Ceresia told The Enterprise that more revenue doesn’t necessarily equal more volume. 

“You can get different reimbursements on different cases,” he said. “Many traffic cases involve fines, but criminal cases can take up more of a judge’s time and bring in less revenue.” He explained that this could mean that Bethlehem has traffic cases that bring in higher fines than Guilderland’s traffic cases, but that the statistics show Guilderland handles more “finger-printable,” or criminal, cases.

Bailey said he and Randall are working hard to keep the court working efficiently, but with the current volume, the part-time positions feel more like full-time. In addition to holding court sessions on two nights during his duty weeks, Bailey said he finds himself at the court three or four nights a week for arraignments, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning.  Ceresia said, “Regular court sessions are just the tip of the iceberg.”

“My job is to help out the various courts,” said Ceresia. “I know the ultimate decision is up to the town board, but I hope everyone can work together to make sure that the ends of justice are met.”

At the March 3 meeting, Redlich expressed a desire to table the decision so he could gather statistics.

     Earlier in the discussion, when Redlich and Grimm had asked for statistics, Runion said they could have seen the issue listed on the agenda and contacted him, asking him to bring statistics to the meeting. Grimm said he had sent just such an e-mail to Runion. The supervisor responded he had blocked all e-mails from Grimm and Redlich to protect his computer from viruses. He accused them of stealing his identity. (See related story).

     Redlich said he will contact other local courts that function with two judges to see how they make it work, as well as compare volumes. He said he will also be in contact with the two existing judges.

Councilman Paul Pastore made the motion to table the decision until the next town board meeting; Redlich and Grimm were in favor, and Runion and Slavik were opposed. The board will discuss the issue again at the next town board meeting.

Other business

In other business at the meeting on March 3, the town board unanimously voted to:

— Permanently appoint Colin Gallup to Parks and Recreation supervisor;

— Authorize Runion to jointly apply with the city of Watervliet for a grant from the Local Government Efficiency Program to fund a study for a water treatment system co-owned by Guilderland and Watervliet. The Watervliet Reservoir is located in Guilderland;

— Authorize remaining escrows held by town in regard to Walgreens at Routes 155 and 20 and Rite Aid at 2025 Western Ave. to be returned to the developer; and

— Authorize the police department to bid for sale of surplus vehicles and equipment.

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