Southold Town Justice Court director Leanne Reilly stood in the town’s jury room Tuesday afternoon thumbing through files. It got that name since it’s where deliberations are held during trials.
Of course it’s also known as the conference room, thanks to the many meetings held at the shiny oak table in the center of the space.
And if there was a location you’d call the records room within the Southold Town Justice Court this one would be it, with dozens of boxes containing more than a decade’s worth of court files stored around its perimeter.
The court safe is secured here, too. One doesn’t have to be an expert in courthouse design to understand this setup is less than ideal, and it would be hard to find a soul at Southold Town Hall who would argue against that point.
Figuring out how to address the problem is something the Southold Town Board will be tasked with in the months to come, as members consider building a new facility or reconfiguring existing town buildings to create a safer, more efficient justice court.
“We need to decide between the courtroom we want and the one we can afford,” said Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell after listening to a presentation Tuesday from Ms. Reilly, Judge Rudolph Bruer and town engineer Jamie Richter, who estimated the cost of building a new courthouse behind Town Hall at approximately $3 million.
A new facility would likely be prefabricated and feature more than 9,000 square feet of floor space, including two courtrooms, Mr. Richter said. It would be similar in design to the courthouse Southampton Town built in 2010 and might even include a basement for additional records storage, he said.
How likely it is that such a courthouse is ever built is another story. The idea of choosing new construction over renovating existing town-owned structures was met with a lukewarm response Tuesday.
“That’s a lot of money,” said Councilman Jim Dinizio of the estimated $3 million price tag. “Shouldn’t we see how far $1 million would go first?”
Mr. Richter, the town court officials and the Town Board’s justice court liaison, Jill Doherty, discussed two other options with the rest of the Town Board Tuesday. One was to renovate the existing Town Hall to create more space for courtroom operations. Another plan would be to convert the under-used Peconic Lane Community School building into a justice court facility, with the current classroom space being converted into a courtroom.
“Ultimately, we have to think about the safety of the general public,” said councilwoman Jill Doherty, who serves on the committee exploring new options for the justice court.
She said there are a lot of safety factors to consider, like where to secure prisoners. And regulations, like one that requires employees to have their own bathroom, for example, also factor in.
After the discussion, Ms. Doherty stressed to a reporter that right now, every space around the justice court serves multiple purposes. The Town Hall meeting room doubles as the courtroom, with town meetings occasionally interrupted by an arraignment. And while prisoners are brought in through a side entrance, family members and friends often wait in the lobby, where local residents line up at the tax receiver’s window.
Judge Bruer said Tuesday that the court is “restricted in [its] use based on the fact that the courtroom is used for other things.”
Several town officials expressed concern Tuesday that any plan to renovate Town Hall wouldn’t fully solve the space crunch, especially when factoring in the current layout.
Mr. Richter said that given its current location in the center of the building, the justice court can’t be isolated from the rest of Town Hall for security purposes without inconveniencing anyone who needs to move from one end of the structure to the other.
Mr. Russell said people who enter the main entrance to Town Hall would be subject to security checks while completing menial tasks.
“We’d be screening people who come in for a dog license,” he remarked.
Ms. Doherty said the town has secured $16,850 in grant funding through New York State, including $10,000 for metal detectors and bulletproof glass. While the Town Board is urging that the metal detectors be put into use as soon as possible, the funding for bulletproof glass is likely to be repurposed while the town weighs its options moving forward. She said two court officers hired in December have not yet started while one awaits approval from the civil service union and another completes training and certification.
While the two new hires and the grant funding can help with security issues in the short term, they do not address the space crunch at Town Hall, which is not a new issue. In September 1966, two weeks before a $1.3 million ballot measure to build a Town Hall on Lower Road was rejected, Newsday reported on the town’s facilities at the time.
“[Supervisor Lester] Albertson’s rented office is in the Greenport Village Hall,” they wrote. “Anyone who wants to use the restroom in that building must pass through the supervisor’s office.”
Five years later, another Newsday reporter described the justice court setup at the American Legion Hall — though court was also occasionally in session at several other unlikely places like the community hall in Orient and the same Peconic elementary school now potentially being considered as the new home of the justice court.
“The judge, Town Justice Martin Suter, is seated on a metal folding chair behind a folding table with an unfinished wooden top,” the Newsday story reads. “He is positioned directly between a Coke machine and a television set. A bogus file cabinet and a pile of legion posters are directly behind him.”
The town later had its own Justice Court building on the north side of Main Road in Cutchogue, but that building was sold in 1981. The town then moved its justice court proceedings to Town Hall, which had been built in 1977, and added the current modular extension that houses the court staff. It was supposed to be a temporary setup, Ms. Doherty said, but more than 30 years later, they remain in the modular.
In 2005, the Town Board acquired an adjacent parcel to begin the process of a Town Hall expansion. Ten years and a lengthy court battle later, the town still owns that property but little has changed.
The court clerks’ desks are cluttered with files since the nearby cabinets are filled. A microwave is stacked on top of one of the cabinets.
Current cases are stored in a section of the court office near the kitchen, which used to be a bathroom. A wooden block, built to be a countertop, covers up the toilet.