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Schenectady Council pushes to keep four city judges

Schenectady Council pushes to keep four city judges

Council says workload justifies number of judges
Schenectady Council pushes to keep four city judges
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy wants to eliminate a city judge position.
Photographer: Gazette file photo

SCHENECTADY -- The City Council is challenging Mayor Gary McCarthy on his call to eliminate one of the four city judge positions.

The council voted 4-2 at a special meeting Monday to take the side of the state Unified Court System, which has said all four judges are needed, and to oppose any state legislation that would reduce the number of judges.

The council's move comes after McCarthy, in his State of the City speech last month, suggested a move to just three City Court judges. At the time, he said the number of cases the judges are hearing has dropped 24 percent since 2010, from more than 21,000 to about 16,000. Criminal cases, traffic tickets and civil cases are all down, he said.

But Council President Ed Kosiur, who called Monday's special meeting, said McCarthy did not consult with the council before making his proposal. 

“My major concern is that we as a council did not hear about this proposal to eliminate a judge until the State of the City a few weeks ago," he said.

One judgeship is potentially available for elimination, as Judge Guido Loyola plans to retire at the end of this year. City Democrats have nominated city Corporate Counsel Carl Falotico for that post.

“The need for this fourth judge is very, very important to us," Kosiur said.

McCarthy was not at Monday's meeting because a state Conference of Mayors meeting in Albany, and did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Kosiur said simply counting the number of cases doesn't factor in the complexity of cases, how many court appearances are involved, or the need for judges to be available to respond when city police make arrests for things like domestic violence -- one of the most common kinds of calls city police receive.

“We cannot afford to lose this fourth judge and not be able to arraign these people in an expedient manner," Kosiur said.

Councilwoman Leesa Perazzo said having enough judges is crucial to quality-of-life issues, like prosecuting zoning and building code violations and dealing with domestic violence.

Council members John Polimeni and Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas voted against the resolution, saying the council should at least wait until a cost-effectiveness study, which has been requested, is complete. They also noted the drop in cases over the past eight years, and Polimeni said the new "Raise the Age" law shifts more criminal cases involving adolescents into Family Court and other court diversion programs, potentially reducing future City Court caseloads.

The fourth judgeship was created by the state in 2013 and was first filled in 2015. Before that, Kosiur said it was common for a judge from Saratoga Springs City Court to be assigned to Schenectady to help handle the city's workload.

The question about the number of judges is tied to the Unified Court System's desire for the city to improve its court facilities. The judges and their staffs are paid by the state, but the city is required to provide the space for their chambers and courtrooms.

The Unified Court System, which administers full-time courts across the state, says that, based on the workload, Schenectady needs four judges.

"In our estimation, a fourth judge is needed," said Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the state Unified Court System, in January. "Schenectady City Court is very busy with annual filings in excess of 18,000 [court filings], in a jurisdiction with a population of 65,000, which is why we maintain that the city of Schenectady needs to provide us with a stable court facility, as they are mandated to do."

The judges now hear criminal cases in a courtroom at the city police station on Liberty Street, with civil and traffic cases heard in City Hall -- and the state has been urging the city to make court improvements for years.

To address those concerns, Kosiur said the city could free up space in City Hall by moving some offices -- he mentioned the city engineer and planning offices -- to the city public works garage building on Foster Avenue.

Reach Daily Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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