Clerk’s courthouse plan wins out
Faced with twin threats of losing state funding and a potential contempt of court order, Dorchester County Council voted Friday to yield to the demands of Chief Justice Jean Toal.
The vote wasn’t a happy one. Council Chairman Bill Hearn said council “agonized” over the question more than any other in his memory.
Hearn, Councilman George Bailey and Councilman Willie Davis voted in favor. Councilwoman Carroll Duncan and Councilman David Chinnis abstained.
Councilmen Larry Hargett and Jay Byars couldn’t attend the special called meeting.
Council members might have believed the law gives them the authority to make physical alterations to the courthouse, but they also believed they would lose any battle with Toal, who ordered that the clerk of court has that authority.
Their vote appropriates up to $12,000 to make alterations to the courthouse as outlined by Clerk of Court Cheryl Graham’s March 11 plan.
Chinnis quoted Attitcus Finch as he made a presentation to council, particularly Finch’s definition of courage: “knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway.”
Chinnis cited the separation of powers and home rule in making his case that council was in the right.
Council never attempted to designate space but simply to create space, he said. Further, the county is required by law to provide an office and a phone, but not a conference room, for judges, he said.
This tug-of-war has been over a conference room, which was included in new At-Large Judge Maite Murphy’s offices in Graham’s plan and in the Probate Court in council’s plan.
Bailey said he’d hoped he’d still be able to sit down with those involved, including Toal, to make council’s case. It’s become clear a meeting with Toal is out, he said.
Bailey said it was never council’s intention to do nothing to make space for Murphy, which was apparently the story that made its way to the Statehouse.
“I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s fair to county council,” Bailey said of the situation.
Fighting Toal’s order doesn’t make practical sense, he said, because an appeal would go “to the chief justice, who’s already made a decision.”
County Attorney John Frampton did send a letter to Toal attempting to explain the county’s position; Toal reportedly considered the letter a motion to reconsider and denied it.
Hearn told council that, knowing Toal denied reconsideration, his concern was making sure council made a decision that complied with her order and wouldn’t result in a finding of contempt of court.
When Chinnis groused that council didn’t get its due process in the matter, Frampton told him, “You’ll get your due process at the contempt hearing.”
The county has been working for months to create space for Murphy, who was elected by the General Assembly on January 30.
On May 20, council approved spending up to $12,000 on alterations as designed by Bailey.
On May 22, the county sent a letter to the clerk asking for court schedules so it could organize construction to have the least impact on court and regular office activities.
The clerk didn’t respond, staff said.
On May 28, a committee approved a slight revision to the county’s plan that would have saved $3,000 to $4,000.
The revised plan needed approval by the full council, but before it got to that point, Toal issued her May 29 order backing Graham’s plan.
On the heels of Toal’s May 29 order, Rep. Jenny Horne introduced a budget proviso taking $30,000 from Dorchester’s local government fund and giving it directly to Graham to make the renovations.
She said the General Assembly would restore the funding if council followed Toal’s order.
“That sounds punitive to me. It actually sounds a little more like extortion,” Chinnis said Friday.
All of the plans deal with providing space for Murphy.
In general, they all move the public defender from his current space on the second floor to a downstairs office; shift the solicitor to the current public defender space; shift the Probate Court to use a portion of its current space as well as the solicitor’s office; and then create a space for Murphy between the Probate Court and the existing Master-in-Equity office.
Graham’s plan, however, takes more space from the Probate Court than would county council’s plan.
The clerk has, by precedent, the authority to designate space within the courthouse. Council shall, by law, “make any alterations and additions deemed advisable, or which may become necessary,” to the courthouse.
The law doesn’t state who would deem alterations advisable, though Toal’s order appears to give that authority to the clerk.
Murphy needs space to work, though her role as an at-large judge means she will often be working out of the county.
Horne said she introduced the budget proviso because council had failed to act and wasn’t obeying the law.
The legislative delegation wasn’t about to let the court system grind to a halt with no chambers for the new judge, she said.
Probate Court Judge Mary Blunt raised concerns early on that plans being floated took too much space from probate court.
Her attorney, John Moylan, wrote a letter to County Attorney John Frampton on May 20 saying Graham’s plan usurped the authority of county council by attempting to make alterations to the courthouse, rather than merely designating space, and failed to provide sufficient space for the probate court to operate, as required by law.
At Friday’s meeting, council members asked that the clerk at least reconsider the timing of construction.
Bailey and Chinnis said they’d heard the clerk wanted to first build the new wall that would create new circuit court space from the probate court.
There are people working in that space now, Chinnis said.
The councilmen said it would be better to start work at the opposite end, thereby creating space for displaced probate employees, before building the circuit court space.
In his opinion the county administrator would direct employees as to the order of construction, Frampton said – first drily questioning the weight of his opinion in light of the fact that he never expected an order from the chief justice ordering council to follow the clerk’s dictates.
Chinnis also raised a last-minute objection to the clerk’s plan, saying the county didn’t have a cost estimate for her plan.
Bailey said he expected, based on his experience, that the clerk’s plan would probably cost about the same as the county’s plan.
Lost in the back-and-forth over the courthouse has been the county’s pride in having a new judge, council members said.
Having an at-large judge from Dorchester County is a “big deal,” Hearn said.
Bailey too, in an earlier interview, said Murphy’s election was “a blessing to Dorchester County.”