In the early 1990s, former Bothell police chief Forrest Conover was part of a team tasked with conducting research that ultimately led to the creation of Bothell’s municipal court. During those days, he said, the city used a joint courtroom in Redmond — a place where subpoenaed Bothell officers would linger waiting to attend court.
“I can remember days when we spent more hours in Redmond than we did in Bothell,” he said, adding that these hours were usually overtime. “That didn’t seem right. Having our court here is a huge benefit to our community for police protection.”
Now there’s a chance Bothell’s municipal court services will be outsourced and the local courtroom disbanded. Conover was one of a number of people who took to the floor at the April 2 City Council meeting. He vocalized his disagreement with the potential decision.
Although nothing is final, the city of Bothell has an ongoing study looking into the idea of outsourcing their municipal court services to courtrooms in the area. The examination began in February of this year, following a request by council.
Last year, as public facility bond talks were happening, court officials requested about $4 million for a complete renovation of the one-room courtroom, said Jennifer Phillips, city manager for Bothell. They requested an additional courtroom and improvements made to the staff area. Other requests came in for added staffing.
Based on those facts, the council requested a study be conducted prior to making additional investments into the municipal court, Phillips said, “to make sure we can deliver municipal court services as effectively and efficiently as we can.”
And at a cost of about $37,000, two consultants have been researching the delivery of service between other Eastside courtrooms, the cost of caseload, comparing service providers, the quality of service and impact.
But some are concerned with the potential negative impacts this decision could bring.
Judge Rebecca Robertson is the president of the District and Municipal Court Judges’ Association. The association’s role is to survey and study the operation of courts, to make them more effective. One committee of the association works to ensure courts remain independent, free from the influence of other government bodies.
Robertson reached out to the city, offering any help the association could give in the city’s decision making. The group has helped other cities contemplating a move toward outsourcing. It has provided numbers and offered members’ expertise on keeping a courtroom local versus having it housed elsewhere.
They city declined the association’s offer. Phillips said this was because they already have an independent third-party study going on with qualified consultants.
Robertson said it would be difficult for the association to take a position on the potential move. But based on all the factors, she failed to see what the benefit factor for Bothell outsourcing would be.
“When folks are looking to outsource their court, frankly most of the time it’s a financial decision,” Robertson said. “They think they’ll save money but that may not always be the case.”
Smaller cities have combined their part-time courtrooms, due to them being unable to sustain a full-time court alone. This was beneficial for them, Robertson said. But for Bothell, a city with a full-time courtroom and a population that continues to grow, consolidating services to another location might not end in a cost saving.
“If outsourced, folks would have to go to Lynnwood, Redmond or Kirkland,” Robertson said. “And so would police officers. They’d be off the street.”
The city of Auburn outsourced its courtroom services to King County District Court in a bid to save money for the city. The initial bid the county gave has since been significantly exceeded, Robertson said. When a contract is signed with an outside jurisdiction, the contracting city will have to pay, even if costs surpass the bid.
And when a judge is terminated prior to completing their term — in an instance such as moving the municipal court services elsewhere — the city must likely foot the judge’s entire salary, on top of paying for contracting court services. Judge Michelle Gehlsen was appointed and confirmed by the Bothell City Council for a term of office that ends in Dec. 31, 2021.
Others who spoke at the council meeting made mention of Bothell’s youth court, which is highly regarded and acts as a model for other youth courts being formed in the state. And other speakers mentioned the potential loss of city control on the budget for court operations.
If the local municipal court is terminated, it also means less flexibility in personalizing court services adhering to the unique needs of Bothell residents.
“One of the best parts of spending my career in Bothell was the fact that our city council, our city administrators and our city staff, when it came to quality of life issues, they consistently put our citizens first,” Conover said. “And continue to do that…the evidence of that is all around us. All anybody has to do is look around our city our streets our schools our parks, downtown, public safety and our municipal court.”