The Alliance of California Judges calls for an independent state auditor to review construction practices and costs

Posted on April 25, 2012

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Dear Members and Others:

Alliance director Judge David Lampe addressed the Judicial Council on April 24, 2012, expressing support for the recommendation of the Court Facilities Working Group, chaired by Justice Brad Hill, to reassess court construction projects. Judge Lampe further requested that the Council adopt an immediate temporary suspension of all construction contracting and projects until the budget picture becomes more clear, pointing out that state revenue will likely be lower than projected. In his words:

“We need to see the May Revise. Our discussions in Sacramento have made it apparent that the Legislature may authorize that some portion of construction funds be used to mitigate the devastation in our operating budgets. We recognize the need for secure, well-maintained facilities and do not minimize the state of disrepair in many state courthouses. However, at this time we must preserve maximum flexibility. We should not encumber or commit funds now without knowing the total budget.”

Judge Lampe also proposed that the Council order an independent investigation and review of court construction costs. Lampe stated that this would be an added cost, but that Justice Hill’s committee would benefit from an independent review and report. Lampe pointed out that mistakes were made with the CCMS project, including the lack of an early cost-benefit analysis, leading to an excoriating report by the State Auditor. Independent review of construction projects now, during the pause of reassessment, would help reassure all concerned that we are doing everything possible to maximize scarce public resources.

Justice Hill advised in his report that his committee has retained an independent consultant and will obtain independent review of all projects and practices. The Alliance proposes that the AOC request that this consultation be made under the auspices of the Bureau of State Audits to ensure its objectivity.

At the meeting, Justice Johnson articulated the stated objectives of the Cost Reduction Committee, which he chairs: (1) Determine if planned courthouses are needed, (2) Determine whether planned courtroom numbers are necessary in those currently planned court construction projects, (3) Review whether more cost-effective leasing options are available, (4) Ensure that those court construction projects being built are done so as efficiently and financially responsibly as possible, and (5) Review possible renovation options that would be more fiscally responsible. Justice Johnson stated he was confident that cost reductions could be implemented without impinging on security, access, or quality of construction.

The mere fact that significant savings may be accomplished without impairing access, security or quality demonstrates how irresponsible the AOC has been in its management of court construction. We find it remarkable that any court construction project was ever planned or completed without these goals in mind. As with the CCMS project, the cavalier approach to expenditure of taxpayer money on court construction is a symptom of the greater problem: the AOC has been allowed to operate as if it runs the courts, and the Judicial Council has so far been unable or unwilling to rein in its growth or demand accountability in its operations.

Until trial court judges have a voice in the selection of members of the Judicial Council, and until the AOC is greatly reduced in size, we can only expect more of the same: superficial changes in operations and empty promises of greater accountability, while trial courts layoff and furlough staff as courthouses close and the public’s access to the courts is further impaired. We remain committed to avoiding that result by continuing to press for a complete delivery of trial court funds to the trial courts and a greatly reduced role of the AOC in the business of court operations. We thank you for your support in those efforts.

Sincerely,

Directors, Alliance of California Judges