Courthouse space divvied
A dispute over office space in the county courthouse appears to be over and, as one councilman observed, everyone is unhappy with the outcome.
Dorchester County Council voted Monday to spend no more than $12,000 from the delinquent tax fund on interior construction to create a new office for at-large Circuit Court Judge-elect Maite Murphy.
“I know it’s a task to try to please four ladies,” said Councilman George Bailey, who led council’s work on the issue through his chairmanship of the public safety committee.
“I don’t like none of this,” he said later, saying he’s been working for months to please five ladies he isn’t even married to.
Bailey didn’t specify the ladies who needed mollifying, but the female denizens of the courthouse include Murphy, Probate Court Judge Mary Blunt, Clerk of Court Cheryl Graham and Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein, with Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal exercising authority from Columbia.
Murphy currently serves as master-in-equity. When the General Assembly elevated her to the circuit court earlier this year, it created a need for another office in the still-new courthouse.
Carving out the office from existing space, however, required moving several agencies and taking space from the Probate Court – how much space is one of the issues in dispute.
Bailey said Probate Court would lose only 67 square feet.
Blunt, however, said her office would lose between 400 and 1,100 square feet.
“I would not have worked tirelessly on this for 67 square feet,” Blunt told council. She said she had a professional contractor run the drawings through a CAD system and that Probate Court would lose 400 square feet.
“That is a lot of space for an office like ours, that services families and constituents, to lose. I don’t think we can bear that,” she said.
She later said the office would actually lose 1,100 feet based on the difference between the motion council voted on and what had been orally represented as the changes.
The space is so important because of the type of work the Probate Court does, she said. The court serves as its own clerk, meaning it stores all its own records, and works with families on estates of the deceased, guardianships for minors and incompetent adults, drug, alcohol and mental illness commitments, marriage license applications and more.
The nature of its work means it deals with sensitive family issues and needs spaces for groups to meet privately, Blunt said.
Blunt’s attorney, John Moylan, sent a letter to the county attorney Monday saying the county’s plan would violate the law by not providing the space necessary to transact business.
Its current space was calculated based on recommendations from an independent consultant using figures from the 2000 Census, he and Blunt said.
Several Probate Court supporters also asked council to reconsider.
Bailey disputed Blunt’s figures and even moreso disputed her characterizations of the process.
“I’ve surely kept Mrs. Blunt in the loop,” he said.
Some of the things said to council were “not facts,” he said. He then thanked County Administrator Jason Ward, Sheriff L.C. Knight, Solicitor David Pascoe and Public Defender Mark Leiendecker for working with the county.
Knight will lose some space, the public defender will move downstairs, the solicitor will move into the public defender’s office and the Probate Court will be shifted to include the solicitor’s office.
Both the solicitor and public defender have primary offices in downtown Summerville.
The initial plan for an office for Murphy, outlined in a letter from Graham, involved adding on to the courthouse, Councilman David Chinnis said.
That just wasn’t going to happen, he said.
Chinnis did a walk-through of the courthouse and found some areas underused, he said.
Murphy’s office will also be underused, he said, as he’s heard estimates she might be in her office between 20 and 30 days per year because she’ll be hearing cases throughout the state.
The county is required to provide her with a space.
Unfortunately, Chinnis said, the entire issue has devolved into personality and politics.
“That’s what this is. It’s politics. I don’t even know how to look at this and feel good about what’s happening,” he said.
Some of the proposals the council received were ludicrous, he said.
Councilman Larry Hargett said Bailey’s solution was “probably as good as we can do.”
Most of the disputed square footage seems to be over a shared conference room, he said.
In contrast to Bailey’s solution, Blunt proposed her office stay put, Murphy remain in the current master-in-equity office and the new master-in-equity occupy the solicitor’s office.
That would make sense for people who have business in the master-in-equity’s office but can’t get to it because it’s behind the secured “red zone,” said Probate Court administrative assistant Melissa Burns.
Burns deals with those people, usually angry from several fruitless walks up and down stairs, as they try to figure out how to access the master-in-equity.
Chinnis said Blunt’s proposal would make sense, except council was told the master-in-equity must have an office in the “red zone.”
Blunt said council was misinformed, but Chinnis said only that she should get a clarification from the state Supreme Court for council to pursue that idea.
Wednesday, Blunt said she is “exploring all possible options” on next steps but hopes council will help her work around the problem.