Judge Sam Warren will continue doing his job in Municipal Court despite the absence of approval this week by the Missoula City Council.
Last week, head Judge Kathleen Jenks swore Warren into office as the new part-time assistant judge, but citizen activist Ross Best said the appointment should have been voted on by the Missoula City Council. So Mayor John Engen requested the council ratify the appointment at its regular Monday meeting.
“I thought we had concern expressed by a citizen. I thought ratifying would solve that problem,” Engen said Tuesday. “That was my conversation with (City Attorney) Jim Nugent, and no good deed goes unpunished.”
At the end of a full agenda, the council took up ratification and voted unanimously to table the matter instead, and Engen said he believes it’s effectively dead. He isn’t overly concerned about it because Nugent has said the council’s approval comes when it adopts a budget that includes the part-time judge; further ratification is a matter of council discretion and is not necessary, according to the city attorney.
At the meeting, Best said Warren is working almost full time, and if he indeed were on the job 40 hours a week, he would have to be elected by the people. He suggested the council consider creating a second judge in the long run; in fact, Jenks has said the workload is there to support a second elected Municipal Court judge, and both Engen and at least one councilor want to see two full-time judges on the bench, too.
“It really is about workload, and if there’s the work to merit that, then clearly we ought to have another elected judge,” Engen said.
Jenks said she has talked with some councilors about the idea because they’d approve the creation of the second judge post. She’d like to see the terms be staggered, and she’d like the council to do so when it’s ready because two bosses in one department isn’t always easy.
“There are some pitfalls to it personnel-wise. It can be a difficult thing for staff to have two judges who are completely independent,” Jenks said.
Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken, who chairs the Administration and Finance Committee, said she’s discussed the matter with the mayor. Administrative costs go up because each judge needs a scheduler, but she said cities much smaller than Missoula have two full-time judges.
“At this point, we need to be responsive to the citizens of Missoula, and it’s not OK to have people going into Municipal Court and waiting hours to see the judge or having their cases pushed back unduly because of the caseload,” Wolken said.
The timing and budget need to come together, and Wolken also said it makes sense to have staggered terms. The head judge is on the ballot in 2013; Wolken said depending on timing, the council could create the second job in the budget and appoint someone who can work until the 2015 election cycle.
Engen said so many changes have taken place in Municipal Court over the past year, he doesn’t see a second judge opening up in 2013, but he believes it’s more likely in 2014. He, too, said the work is enough.
“And I don’t sense that there would be any opposition to having a second judge,” Engen said.
If the person were elected, the “quandary” of needing the council’s approval would be moot as well, as one councilor described the conflict. Warren could not be reached Tuesday for comment, and Jenks said she finds it unfortunate he’s in the middle of the controversy.
Jenks didn’t take a position on council ratification, and she didn’t attend the meeting. She watched the council deliberation, though, and she said she shares some councilors’ concern that approval would set a bad precedent and take away a judge’s authority to appoint her own assistant.
She also said the earlier assistant judge, Marie Andersen, wasn’t ever confirmed by the council. If Best were correct that approval was necessary, a process would be in place for doing so, Jenks said. Clearly, it isn’t.
At the meeting Monday, Councilman Ed Childers said he doesn’t want to be put in the position of having to ratify every single substitute judge who ever works in Municipal Court. What if someone works just one day or even a few hours?
“That concerns me. That’s a separate branch of government,” Childers said.