How about that court construction & facilities maintenance audit?

Posted on June 30, 2015

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The Judicial Council and their predecessor AOC started being watched by watchers when they started shutting down courtrooms and laying people off while building even more courtrooms our beleaguered courts could not afford to staff.

First out of the chute was a “model courthouse serving the needs of two counties” called the Plumas-Sierra regional courthouse. At a cost of over 6 million dollars for this one courtroom courthouse, the two counties managed to scratch together enough nickels to keep it open one day a week. Over time, even that paltry pile of nickels wasn’t enough to keep the courthouse open even one day a week and it was shut down.

Today that courthouse is likely going up for rent after the last judicial council vote. Of course its current layout won’t suit any renter that’s not adjudicating cases or holding judicial or quasi-judicial hearings so what remains on the table will likely involve gutting the courthouse on the inside to make tenant improvements that will make the space more palatable to any prospective tenant. So about a million plus worth of construction, furniture, fixtures and equipment will be coming out and who knows how much in tenant improvements will go in.

Next up was East Contra Costa County courthouse which was initially so far down the construction needs list that it should have never been built. It was not even on the construction radar because there was never enough bond money to go that far down the construction needs priority list. Mysteriously, this courthouse that was so far down the list that it should have never been built jumped the line to number two out of the chute. A question for auditors: Why did this happen?

Well, except it wasn’t number two. It was number two for trial courts…..

After the bonds were approved, the first ones to get new or expanded digs were both the AOC’s three locations and most of the appellate courts with questionable needs. Then came the trial courts…. Another question for the auditors….

Now on the face of it, it may not seem odd to you but let’s not forget that litigants and convicts rarely – if ever – show up in appellate court. The real need for court construction was in turn of the century courthouses that were seismically unsafe and walked prisoners among the public and judicial branch staff into courtrooms. So safety and security of turn of the century courthouses were the impetus for requesting 5 billion dollars in bond money.

On the heels of East Contra Costa County Courthouse we had a few construction whistle blowers that blew the whistle loud and clear to the state legislature, the rest of the branch and the media about the AOC’s facilities maintenance program and the methodical steering of contracts to unlicensed, overpriced contractors. Shortly thereafter, Chief Justice George suddenly decided that he was not going to run for another 12 year term, even though he had already largely been campaigning for it.

He would make this announcement shortly after one of those whistle blowers was fired that just so happened to work for him. Coincidence? We think not. But a question for the auditors would be why was the AOC allowed to use these overpriced, unlicensed contractors and then do everything legally necessary to conceal those facts including taking on litigation they intended to lose, costing the state of California tens of millions of dollars that should never have been paid by state coffers to these unlicensed contractors in the first place.

Next up was all of the expensive remodeling jobs discovered by the courts themselves and plastered all over major media from Sacramento to San Diego where the whistle blowers allegations of outlandish costs was well supported. Since the issue of licenses is a legal question, you never heard mention of it because it was the subject of pending litigation and those same courts could not say a word about licenses and what they discovered. Gotta love them judicial cannons that permit crime to happen under the noses of courts and they can’t say a damn thing about it.

Then we have the project that might have come right out of Kelly Johnson’s skunkworks – the first public private partnership courthouse in California. Even though many other PPP’s in the state have evolved into disastrous messes, the judicial council would frame the Long Beach courthouse as “performance based infrastructure” so that you would believe that the million plus dollars a month the facility costs in rent was somehow worth it and that there is some form of assurance of not getting screwed for a substandard building and services.

Oddly, it too would jump out of order to get built quickly. Again the state auditor should ask why was this built before many other courthouses and why did they choose to front load the payments, maintenance and operations rather than traditional, lower rate bond financing and take the maintenance and operations hits later?

I wish we were done but I haven’t yet brought up all of the time, effort, consulting fees and lost productivity trying to win a “baby baldridge” award with court facilities maintenance funds. Or the bundling of projects to conceal their true costs or appropriating project money from new construction to be steered into maintenance on unrelated projects.

I could continue writing for weeks. But wouldn’t it just be easier to just audit the court construction and facilities maintenance programs and just follow the money?