District court request to be considered Tuesday following contentious discussion

At its executive meeting on Wednesday, April 14 the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to add a request from 3B District Court for an exception to the hiring freeze to the agenda for its next meeting.

Commissioners Dennis Allen, Kathy Pangle, and Jared Hoffmaster voted in favor of placing the request on Tuesday’s agenda, while Commissioners Ken Malone and Dan Czajkowski opposed it.

Court Administrator/Magistrate Tabitha Wedge spoke to commissioners Wednesday about the prospect of hiring a deputy clerk and filling the lone vacancy in her department. The position, which would pay at least $17.90 an hour and include a comprehensive benefit package, has gone unfilled for some time as the county commission worked its way through financial difficulties associated with the pandemic.

“As you’re aware, we have several new people in district court, (which causes delays) in training, learning, and being able to get educated on all of the court rules and procedures,” Wedge said. “And now we’re moving into our summer vacations and times, so I’m coming back before the board saying it’s kind of critical that we get that position filled, begin training so we can still (ensure) some staff will get a summer vacation.”

Wedge added she’s very concerned about burnout with the workload her clerks “are facing and have been facing” because of the high turnover the office has experienced over the past year, and its dependence on the district court’s most experienced clerks as they try to get recent hires up to speed. The position in question would be cross trained to work in both civil court and the probation department, giving Wedge some much needed flexibility.

Malone inquired whether the commission received any assistance from the courts division in terms of budget cuts because “the last I knew they didn’t offer a dime.” Wedge and County Administrator Teresa Doehring said the courts raised some fees but didn’t make cuts beyond those price hikes.

“Where all of the other departments worked so hard to help us with our financial problem, I still don’t think we received anything from the courts,” Malone said.

Allen said he was concerned about “how long before courts are back in (session),” citing the court’s recent demotion to Phase 1 as county COVID-19 positivity rates continue to rise. “Are we ever going to be in Phase 3 or are we going to be in 2022 before that happens?”

Wedge assured commissioners the courts are still conducting business “every day by our virtual hearings,” they just haven’t been able to conduct jury trials due to the pandemic.

“We’re still accepting filings, we’re still taking our phone calls, we’re still doing everything we can to deal with the public,” Wedge said. “As far as the phases go, are hands are tied on that as well. We don’t have any control over that, that is being done by the state court administrator’s office, they’re watching the percentages as well and they’re telling us when we have to go back to phases and go forward.”

Allen said he’s seen trials in other counties on television, and asked if there was anything the county could do to get back into the courtroom. Prosecutor Dave Marvin said it is “out of our hands entirely,” and comes down to the positivity rate within the county, which will continue to prevent the district and county courts from holding jury trials until those numbers drop significantly.

Allen asked commissioners if they wanted to add the request to Tuesday’s agenda, to which there was no response. “I don’t hear a lot of enthusiasm.”

Wedge expressed disappointment in the commissioners’ resistance to her request. “The district court staff works very hard and are a dedicated group of people, they work for the board of commissioners, they’re working for the county, they’re doing all they can, they’ve been on the frontlines. They’ve been giving their all and I guess I feel the commission has an opportunity and a responsibility to show some staff support for the service they’re providing on behalf of this county.”

Malone said he got the impression the court feels “it’s above (making budget cuts),” and while he doesn’t feel “it lies on Tab’s shoulders because I don’t believe she controls that budget over there,” he couldn’t in good conscience vote in favor of the requested exception. Pangle said she agrees the courts division could work with the commission better but commissioners shouldn’t “take it out on (Wedge),” as she will need the help once courts resume regular operations.

Commissioners will make a formal decision during its regular meeting on Tuesday, April 20 at 5 p.m. The meeting will take place in-person but will also be broadcast via Zoom.

Alek Haak-Frost is executive editor of Watershed Voice.