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Court consolidation going nowhere

A proposed plan by the Grady County Board of Commissioners to consolidate magistrate and probate courts in the hope of saving money and making county government more efficient is apparently dead, at least for four years.
After voting on Dec. 6 to instruct Grady County Attorney Kevin S. Cauley to proceed with drafting local legislation to consolidate the two courts, at the first meeting of the new year Tuesday the county commission tabled the issue after a lengthy discussion.
Somewhat complicating the issue was the possibility of consolidating not only magistrate and probate but Grady County State Court, as well, into a single inferior court.
Cauley contacted the State Attorney General’s Office to discuss the possibility of rolling the three courts into one. Although no official opinion was issued, Cauley said that through his discussions with an assistant attorney general it is clear that such a change would require statewide general legislation and could not be done through local legislation.
“If we combine all three, we would be unique, and if successful, it would require a cumbersome legislative process that I’m not sure we could accomplish this session,” Attorney Cauley told board members Tuesday.
The county attorney said that magistrate and probate courts could be consolidated through local legislation and noted that it had been done in other counties within the state.
However, Cauley said it is unlikely the local legislative delegation would champion the local legislation unless the board of commissioners were unanimous in their desire to consolidate the courts.
At the Dec. 6 meeting, Dist. 1 Commissioner Elwyn Childs was the lone vote against the local legislation being drafted.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Dist. 2 Commissioner Billy Poitevint said that he had received phone calls from his constituents in opposition to the court consolidation. Later in the meeting, he admitted he had received only five telephone calls.
At first, Poitevint said he could not go along with the consolidation, but as the discussion progressed he noted, “I will not be the one to prevent this from moving forward if the rest of the board wants to go forward with it.”
County Administrator Rusty Moye said that he and the county attorney had discussed the issue and requested the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting in light of the precedent that the local legislative delegation would not support local legislation unless the board was unanimously in support of the legislation.
“If the board is not unanimous, then actually it is not a viable issue because it would take unanimous agreement for our local legislators to even consider,” Moye noted.
Cauley went further to explain that it is not a legal requirement for local legislation to have unanimous support, but without the full support of the local legislative delegation it would be nearly impossible to get the legislation passed by both the house and senate.
“The whole point of this is for a cost savings, but we don’t have any firm numbers to consider. I’m for moving forward if we can save money, but if we end up having to have an election superintendent and a board of elections, I don’t know if we’ll save anything or not,” Dist. 3 Commissioner Charles Norton said.
Newly elected Chairman Elwyn Childs asked if the judge of the consolidated court would be required to be a member of the bar. Cauley and Moye said that would be up to the board of commissioners to decide.
Childs said he preferred keeping it open to anyone who wished to run, rather than limiting it to members of the bar.
Dist. 5 Commissioner T.D. David said, “I just feel like we need more information before making a decision. The only reason I am hesitant not to move forward is not having enough information to make a good decision. We could do a better job with this if we had more information. The numbers we received this morning from Judge (Larry) Bearden are one-sided and the first set of numbers we got could have been. I’m not against tabling this until we can get all the information we can. There are always ways to improve the way we do things. I’d just like to look at it with a little broader brush.”
David also said that he, too, had received calls about court consolidation, but the calls he had received were in support of the action.
Administrator Moye suggested the time to discuss cost savings and budget ramifications would be during the process of preparing the county’s 2013 budget.
“The issue is probably moot now, considering the timing. We probably waited a little late in the process to proceed during this legislative session,” Moye said.
The county administrator added, “Four years from now if the board at that point wants to explore this possibility, they probably need to begin working on it a year ahead. To proceed right now I think we are late.”
“We discussed it six months ago and it fell through the cracks,” Commissioner Norton responded.
Since local legislation can be passed at any time during the 40 day session, Cauley noted the legislation could possibly be “squeezed through” before the session ended if the board so chose.
“My only request would be that we have unanimous approval if you want me to proceed this session,” Cauley said.
“I’d like to see some firm numbers first,” Commissioner Norton said.
Chief Magistrate Larry Bearden appeared before the board Tuesday and presented his budget calculations for a combined court. He also informed the board that judges from across the circuit had come in to hear civil matters in his absence.
“Sadie (Voyles) and I are occupied pretty much all day long as it is now,” Chief Magistrate Bearden said.
Commissioners agreed there must be room for more efficiency since Probate Judge Sadie Voyles has accepted the duties of managing city of Cairo elections for a fee, and Assistant Magistrate Pat Pollock has been able to carry on the duties of the chief magistrate’s office during Judge Larry Bearden’s extended illness.
“I don’t mean to be negative, but I’ve seen what happened. I hate you were sick and thank the Lord you are doing better and able to get around, but the man who stepped in (Asst. Magistrate Pat Pollock, a co-worker of Childs at Clark Funeral Home) and took your place while you were out, did it on a part-time basis, and I heard no complaints about how the job was done,” Chairman Childs commented.
“Let me make this clear again. While some constituents called me, I only had five out of about 5,000 so if the majority of the board wants to go forward I will not be the one to say not to do it,” Commissioner Poitevint said.
After some discussion of tabling the matter until Feb. 7, 2012, to obtain additional information, the board voted to table the matter indefinitely.
Cauley noted the board can revisit the matter at any time, but Ball noted that with elections being held this year for both offices, now is the opportune time to make a change if a change is going to be made.
The chief magistrate made a request that if the board decides to renew discussions of the court consolidation, it notify him in advance.

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