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Talks to begin on Schenectady courtroom upgrades

Talks to begin on Schenectady courtroom upgrades

State mandating improvements to City Court facilities
Talks to begin on Schenectady courtroom upgrades
Schenectady City Hall, which houses City Court, is pictured.
Photographer: Gazette file photo

SCHENECTADY — Mayor Gary McCarthy’s proposal to eliminate one of the city’s four City Court fell flat earlier this year.

Now three months after the City Council voted to override the mayor to keep the number of judges at four, the city and state Office of Court Administration (OCA) are preparing to discuss state-mandated improvements to the court facilities. 

“The administrative judge for the judicial district covering Schenectady will be calling the mayor to arrange a meeting in the very near future,” said OCA spokesman Lucian Chalfen on Wednesday. 

Chalfen and McCarthy declined to discuss a timeline or additional details. 

“Let’s have the meeting first,” he said. “Then we will see how we mutually move forward.”

Judge Guido Loyola will retire in December, which prompted McCarthy's push to eliminate the position.

City Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico is running unopposed for the seat, which carries a 10-year term.

City Court facilities are located at City Hall and the Schenectady Police Department, where the judges cycle through a daily churn of misdemeanor criminal cases, motor vehicle and parking infractions, civil actions, small claims and landlord-tenant disputes. 

While judges and their staff are paid by the state, the city is required to provide space for their facilities.

McCarthy has previously said the mandate has the potential to cost the city “in the range of $3 million.”

Prosecutors and defense attorneys who use the courtroom wondered about the logistics and how the extra space would influence court proceedings and scheduling.

“Where are we going to put that fourth courtroom?” asked county Public Defender Stephen Signore. 

He acknowledged privacy issues at City Hall when discussing cases with clients who remain in police custody.

“There is an issue of one-on-one confidentially when they’re in the back," he said.

From an engineering perspective, he said the easiest possible solution would be to build onto the existing courtroom at the police station on nearby Liberty Street. 

Signore also wondered if an additional fully-staffed courtroom would require his office to scale up resources, which he said are already at a premium.

County District Attorney Robert Carney shared similar concerns.

“If a fourth courtroom requires everyone meeting at the same time, that requires more personnel,” Carney said. “It would require a staff expansion and OCA does not provide any resources for prosecution and defense. It’ll be a problem.”

Despite a decade-long drop in crime, OCA and supportive city lawmakers have contended with over 18,000 filings annually, the fourth judge is needed.

But McCarthy said the reduction in criminal cases, traffic tickets, civil cases and fines is why he wanted to eliminate the position.

Furthermore, he has said, “Raise the Age” legislation, which steers juvenile offenders into Family Court, as well as proposed changes in marijuana laws and city police’s implementation of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, will remove additional work from the court. 

Since the fourth judge was added in 2015, criminal misdemeanor cases have dropped from 4,840 to 3,890 in 2018, according to the OCA. 

Civil cases saw a slight decrease during the same time period — from 767 to 721 — as well as motor vehicles, which dropped from 9,594 to 7,425.

Other areas saw an uptick, including small claims, from 324 to 379, and landlord-tenant disputes, which leapt from 2,700 to 3,200 filings. 

Chalfen, the OCA spokesman, noted City Court will be the hub for a new human trafficking intervention court that will be opening this year. 

Adjoining counties will be sending those types of cases to the city, he said, “which is why keeping the fourth judge was an imperative.” 

City Council has asked the state Comptroller’s Office and OCA to work with city and state officials to explore ways to reduce costs associated with the upgrades. 

“If they fail to comply, we can tell the state comptroller to withhold state funds to the locality,” Chalfen said. “However, that is a last resort which we don’t envision in this circumstance.”

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