Sheriff, judges ask county board to consider courthouse security, again. 

September 28, 2021

Sheriff, judges ask county board to consider courthouse security, again. 

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

PERE MARQUETTE TOWNSHIP — Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole has again proposed that the Mason County Board of Commissioners consider adding security to the Mason County Courthouse. Cole submitted a proposal Tuesday, Sept. 28, to the county’s public safety and courts committee with the endorsement of the courthouse’s security committee led by Judge Jeff Nellis, who is the elected probate court judge and serves as Mason County’s chief judge. 

Currently, Mason County’s courthouse is one of the few in the region that does not have some type of continuous security. Since the pandemic, a security company has been hired, using federal relief funds, to screen visitors for COVID-19. However, that firm’s authority is limited to strictly allowing visitors into the courthouse. The security guard, located in the basement of the courthouse, is unarmed and does not have arrest powers. 

The sheriff’s proposal calls for three full time deputies to be hired. Those deputies would be bound by the same union contract as the county’s road patrol deputies but would be dedicated to the courthouse. The three deputies would work staggering shifts and would include one supervisor who would report to the sheriff’s office administration. 

The proposal was presented by Undersheriff Derrek Wilson, representing Sheriff Cole who is out of the state. Also present was Judge Nellis. The committee consists of county commissioners Gary Castonia, serving as chair, Jody Hartley and Dr. Lewis Squires. Castonia is a retired Ludington Police Department officer and Hartley is a retired sheriff’s deputy, and served as undersheriff before his retirement. 

The topic of courthouse security was last brought up to the county commission by Sheriff Cole in 2018. At that time, the public safety and courts committee recommended that the proposal be passed along to the county’s finance committee. That plan was endorsed by all three of the judges who worked in the courthouse at the time: 79th District Court Judge Peter Wadel, 51st Circuit Court Judge Susan Sniegowski, and Judge Nellis. Since that time, Judge Wadel has retired and was replaced by Judge John Middlebrook. 

The previous proposal called for eight part-time deputies, with consideration going to hiring retired deputies. The new proposal is for full time deputies. Wilson said consideration would still likely go towards retired deputies, which could save the county money since they would fall under a different benefit package. 

Michigan state statute MCL 600.581 gives judges the authority to require the sheriff and his deputies to attend court sessions (bailiffs) 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. 

Squires asked Judge Nellis if the judges would ever consider invoking the statute to require that bailiffs be present in the courthouse at all times. Nellis responded that the judges would prefer not to take such action but it hasn’t been ruled out. 

The committee members discussed if hiring a private firm may be a more cost effective option. Though not endorsing the idea, Hartley made a motion to instruct County Administrator Fabian Knizacky to request proposals from security firms on costs of courthouse security, with the preference that those private security personnel be armed. Judge Nellis pointed out that bailiffs still need to be officers deputized by the sheriff. No time line was given on when Knizacky were to report back on with the proposals. The motion was passed 2-1 with Castonia voting against it. 

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