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Courthouse business might shrink to one floor

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Posted on August 30, 2010 |
By John Flowers



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ADDISON COUNTY SUPERIOR Court clerk Jo LaMarch is overseeing some changes within the court administration designed to make services more cost efficient and customer friendly. Eventually court services might be consolidated onto one floor of the Frank Mahady Courthouse in Middlebury. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — People visiting the Frank Mahady Courthouse in Middlebury will soon notice some subtle changes in how Addison County’s court system is organized and conducts business.

And eventually, people will notice some big changes — including the ability to file their complaints electronically and potentially see court offices consolidated within a single floor of the 40,000-square-foot courthouse building.

The short-term, subtle changes — which began to take effect July 1 — include reorganization of the Superior, Family, District and Environmental courts as separate divisions of a newly created “unified Vermont Superior Court.” This will require, among other things, that staff receive training to field customer inquiries across all four court divisions, or at least be able to refer clients to the appropriate official, according to Superior Court Clerk Jo LaMarche.

“It will be more customer friendly, with more ‘one-stop shopping,’” LaMarche said. “We are transitioning to a system where people will be able to walk in the front door and not having to be sent to a different person. Whoever greets them will be able to at least answer any general questions they have, instead of saying, ‘You need to go here, or you need to go there.’”

Plans call for some cross-training between the different divisions of family, criminal, civil and probate courts, so that when people walk through the door, the person staffing the front counter will be able to handle general service requests, according to LaMarche.

This change, occurring in courthouses statewide, comes as a result of a state mandate to streamline court services and cut the Vermont judiciary budget. Select courts have already had to absorb furlough days.

In line with the transition, LaMarche will soon hire an “operations manager” to oversee the daily functions of the courts and to work collaboratively with the presiding judges on case management, court programs, the use of court facilities, the relationship with the local bar and community, and other issues related to the effective and efficient operation of all the Superior Court divisions.

The new judiciary changes aren’t likely to raise a lot of eyebrows among courthouse customers, but there are some more sweeping overhauls on the horizon.

Among them is an “e-filing” system in the works that will allow lawyers and citizens to electronically file their complaints. It’s a paperless transition that will be piloted for civil cases in Rutland and Windsor counties beginning this October and will be mandated for all civil cases in all courts by the beginning of next year, according to Vermont State Court Administrator Bob Greemore. That will be followed by new case management system.

“By February of 2012, we are hoping to have a new case management system on line, so the whole court system is under one data base,” Greemore said.

The goal is to make Vermont one of the few states nationwide to have e-filing the standard throughout its court system, according to Greemore.

At the same time, state judiciary officials will be encouraging court operations to run as efficiently as possible. As such, the judiciary will look to substantially shrink its footprint in the 15-year-old Mahady Courthouse.

Greemore confirmed that he has “strongly recommended” that the Addison County judiciary consolidate its operations into one floor in the courthouse, which includes four courtrooms and hearing rooms, offices for four courts and several judges, numerous meeting rooms, a holding area and indoor garage, and ample storage in a spacious basement.

“We spend about $430,000 (annually) to use that building,” Greemore said. In an inter-department fund transfer, the state court system pays the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services an annual rental fee for courthouse space. Greemore said the state could save significant dollars if it uses less of the courthouse space and instead rents it out to other entities.

The Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC) has already inquired about renting space in the future. The organization currently leases offices at the former Central Vermont Public Service headquarters on Seminary Street. Adam Lougee, executive director of the ACRPC, has offered to transfer his offices to the state-owned courthouse if such a move can save on rental fees. The ACRPC, among other agencies, was asked to tighten its belt next fiscal year as part of the Douglas Administration and Legislature’s “Challenges for Change” proposal.

Lougee noted the ACRPC still has three years left on its lease on Seminary Street, so a move would not be likely in the near future.

LaMarche on Monday placed the total number of courthouse workers (including maintenance staff) at 17.5 full-time equivalent positions.

She has some mixed feelings about moving into tighter quarters.

“In terms of putting us on one floor, I think it makes sense in some ways, but I don’t know how that would affect us in terms of running around trying to get files,” LaMarche said. “We do, each of us, have our own respective vaults and when we don’t have a file that is accessible to us, we have to go to the basement — and it takes a while.”

LaMarche said she is confident that the advent of e-filing will relieve some of the filing chores, but the courthouse will always need archives.

“If we can reconfigure things so we don’t have to run up and down stairs, I don’t see any major issues (with consolidating court activities on a single floor),” LaMarche said.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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