Judges raise concerns about courthouse security; proposal moving forward.

March 6, 2018

The county public safety and courts committee, along with Judge Sniegowski, Sheriff Cole, and Prosecutor Spaniola, discuss the topic of courthouse security.

Judges raise concerns about courthouse security; proposal moving forward.

#MasonCountyNews.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

LUDINGTON — The Mason County Board of Commissioners’ Public Safety and Courts Committee passed a proposal Tuesday, March 6, by Sheriff Kim Cole to provide security personnel at the Mason County Courthouse. The proposal will now go to the county Finance Committee.

The public safety and courts committee has been discussing the topic for the past three months. Mason County is the only county in region that does not staff its courthouse with security. Sheriff Cole’s proposal calls for part-time personnel to be present at the courthouse 50 hours a week. He is recommending that retired law enforcement officers be hired for the positions.

The plan is endorsed by all three of the judges who work in the courthouse: 79th District Court Judge Peter Wadel (who is also the chief county judge), 51st Circuit Court Judge Susan Sniegowski, and Mason County Probate Court Judge Jeffrey Nellis.

“After spending many years collectively on the bench, the judges of this county are in agreement that the issue of court security needs to be addressed,” the judges wrote in a memo to the committee.

“In some respects this is a difficult topic to tackle. We are sympathetic to budgetary concerns, as well as issues related to the character of the historic courthouse structure. However, and unfortunately, we live in a much different world than the one that existed when the structure was built. Security breaches happen in big cities and small towns. In our courtrooms we deal with families in distress, people who suffer from diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illness, folks who are addicted to powerful drugs, as well as criminal defendants. Children are removed from their parents, marriages are ended and people are sent to prison. Sheriff Kim Cole is correct when he describes the courthouse as a ‘flashpoint’ in our community. Emotions can run very high. We cannot accurately predict who may act out on any particular day. We do have the ability and the experience to diffuse many situations, but we cannot assume that these judicial efforts will always be successful, especially without backup from law enforcement.

“Operating the courts in an environment where there is no security, places the citizens who are conducting business in the courthouse, at risk. We should not wait for the unthinkable to happen before we act. As such, the county should consider steps needed to implement courthouse security, as soon as possible. All of the other surrounding counties have implemented courthouse security measure in the past few years. Now, it is time to follow their lead.

“There are various options that can be considered. This includes officers in the courtrooms (bailiffs), creating a single point of entry to the building and weapons screening at the entry point. In a perfect world we would utilize all of the above. For now, we would support the hiring of officers to be in the building during work hours. This is consistent with Sheriff Cole’s proposal and we support this idea.

“Statutorily, the duty to provide manpower for court security appears to lie with the Mason County Sherif’s Office. MCL 600.581 give the circuit, district, and probate judges the authority to require the sheriff and his deputies to attend court sessions and to fine the sheriff for a failure to attend. Historically, both Ludington Police Department, and MCSO have very cooperatively provided security detail at the courthouse when requested. Legally, though, this obligation appears to lie with the sheriff.

“Our first concern is safety for the public and county employees. We also need to keep in mind the potential liability the county could face in the event of an incident.

“We are very willing to work with the Commission to create a workable solution that is fiscally responsible while providing a measure of safety to members of the public who come to the courthouse to conduct their business, and to the county employees working in this building. We look forward to collaborating with you, for the benefit of the citizens of Mason County.”

Judge Sniegowski, and Mason County Prosecuting Attorney Paul Spaniola, attended Tuesday’s meeting. Judge Sniegowski said that just last week there was a security issue at the courthouse where a parent of a criminal defendant had become upset to the point where it was clear that there was a security risk to people in the courtroom. Personnel had to call 911 and Ludington Police Department responded.

“This situation could have been handled within a couple of minutes if there had been an officer there,” Sniegowski said. “In this particular incident we were off the record for 30 minutes, which means that we are paying my staff to be there longer and that increases the county’s expenses.”

Sheriff Cole said that there are often days when the sheriff’s office does not have personnel immediately available to respond to the courthouse. He said it would be likely that he would have to call in off-duty personnel, which means paying overtime and therefore increased expenses.

County Administrator Fabian Knizacky estimated the costs of employing up to eight part-time deputies and to equip them at $250,029 for the first year, followed by $173,752 the second year, $176,932 the third year and $180,170 the fourth year. Costs include salaries, taxes, liability insurance, equipment and uniform costs, training, and miscellaneous expenses.

The question of how the county will pay the costs was raised. Knizacky told the committee members that the finance committee, and ultimately the commission as a whole, will need to decide if it will reduce budgets from other departments or request a millage from voters. The committee members, which include Steve Hull, Gary Castonia, and Lew Squires, discussed the option of merging a millage proposal with the sheriff’s request for additional road patrol deputies, a proposal that may also be placed on the ballot. Knizacky reminded the committee members that their duty was to decide if there was a need for the service and that the Finance Committee’s function was to determine the financial portion of the proposal.

Sheriff Cole said he was concerned that the proposal may not have the full support of the county commission. “I think one of the problems I see is we don’t have all of the county commissioners on board as far as a millage request, and that’s problematic.”

The Finance Committee will discuss the topic during its next regular meeting, Tuesday, March 22 at 9 a.m. at the courthouse.

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