Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Cornell tabbed as new city court judge

Following weeks of deliberations, a divided Columbus Town Council approved the nomination of Justice of the Peace-elect Lee Cornell as the city judge during the Dec. 1 meeting.
The council had agreed at the last meeting on Nov. 17 to postpone making a decision after retiring judge Marilyn Kober told the council that the caseload in both courts had increased dramatically in recent years.
Cornell sent a letter to the council addressing some of the claims raised by Kober at the Nov. 17 meeting. He was unable to attend the meeting in person as he was attending training in Helena.
Cornell stated in the letter that he would be honored to serve as the city court judge. He said one thing he has learned in training recently is that many counties of a similar size utilize the same arrangement where the county and city share a judge in order to save local government “a considerable amount of taxpayer dollars.”
Cornell also noted that Carbon County and Red Lodge recently reached an agreement to combine the city court and county justice court as a cost-saving measure.
“Since it wasn’t any shock to anyone that this was an election year, I would think that these issues would have been raised prior to last week’s council meeting so that these issues could be discussed openly throughout the past year by candidates that were seeking the Justice of the Peace position since it has been common knowledge that in the past the JP has historically been appointed City Judge,” Cornell wrote to the council.
Cornell also expressed his willingness to work the hours necessary, and to adjust the court schedules as needed, to address any backlog.
“If I did so a couple days a week I am quite confident we could get the backlog of cases under control as well as handle any increase to the court. One would think that if there has been such a serious increase to the amount of work being handled by City Court that these steps would have already been taken.”
Nystul began the council’s discussion by saying that after reading Cornell’s letter that Cornell was aware of the job and felt he could handle the work load.
Councilman Jon Brown said the council had two conflicting opinions with Kober and Cornell. It seems we need something black and white, facts and figures, he said.
“Neither one does anything for me,” Brown said.
At the Nov. 17 council meeting Nystul had proposed waiting to appoint a judge so that council members would have time to research on their own and to talk with the Justice of the Peace candidates to gauge their thoughts about the case load.
New Issues Raised
Mayor Gary Woltermann said there are some things the council needs to address while starting out fresh with a new judge, including time sheets. Woltermann said the town had paid Kober by the hour, but never had time sheets.
Councilman Paul Edwards said he agreed with the mayor about time sheets for the judge, adding that they needed some accountability. Edwards also suggested nominating Cornell on a trial basis.
Councilwoman Patti Sundberg said she seldom receives phone calls from constituents, but has received phone calls from residents in support of continuing the shared judge agreement.
Nystul made a motion to appoint Cornell as the city court judge and follow the same approach that had been used in the past. The council approved the appointment 4-2 with Councilmen Harold Houghton and Jon Brown opposing.
Sundberg then asked how many hours the current judge works.
“We don’t know,” said Town Clerk Ron Barndt.
The council will meet in a special session Monday, Dec. 8 to continue discussion on the appointment, including compensation.
Town Attorney Doug Howard will prepare a shared services agreement and send it to the Stillwater County Commissioners. The agreement will be a one-year renewable contract.
State law requires a written agreement between the county and town for a shared judge. There is currently not a written agreement in place. Howard said he sent an agreement to the county commissioners three years ago, but had never received a response. The county and town have shared costs for the judge despite not having a formal contract.