by Mary Wilson, firstname.lastname@example.org
Municipal courts in the State of Missouri must now follow rules which have been in place for quite some time, but previously were not enforced, according to Grandview Municipal Court Judge Ronald E. Johnson. With the passage of Senate Bills 5 and 572, the state has begun to take a closer look at court procedures and ordinances; and therefore, it has been determined that the Grandview Municipal Court is doing some things incorrectly.
“The State of Missouri and Missouri’s Supreme Court really hadn’t paid a lot of attention to municipal courts,” said Johnson. “County and state courts have been using these mandates forever. Since the municipal court is part of the same superior system, we are to adhere to the same principles.”
One such principle is that the municipal court be separate from city government. In many situations, according to Johnson, the courts were essentially being treated as another department of the city rather than an independent entity. The offices for the Grandview Municipal Court shares space with the city’s finance department, which Johnson said is not in compliance with the Missouri Supreme Court.
“The court has to remain neutral,” said Johnson. “It’s not proper and it doesn’t set a good appearance. We started making the city aware that we needed to change. What I get from them (the city) is that, because of the cost, because of being told what to do, and because of the space that we recommend using, they’d rather just hand us over to someone else rather than be in compliance with the law.”
Johnson and Court Administrator Becky Diederich proposed moving the municipal court offices into what is now the Business Center inside City Hall. It is a two-room area, away from the finance department and would comply with Missouri Supreme Court’s operating standards.
Because Grandview Municipal Court is not in compliance with operating standards, Judge John Torrence, with the Circuit Court of Jackson County, in a letter dated July 11, 2018, will consider all available sanctions to be imposed against the City of Grandview. Torrence requested a response from the City of Grandview by August 3. On that date, City Attorney Joseph Gall responded to Torrence, stating that he has been directed to prepare an ordinance for the Board of Aldermen to consider at its regular meeting on Tuesday, August 14.
“The ordinance will resemble the ordinance passed by the Lake Tapawingo Board of Aldermen on September 7, 2017, an ordinance electing to have municipal ordinance violation cases heard and determined by an Associate Circuit Judge of the Circuit Court of the Sixteenth Judicial Circuit,” Gall’s letter stated. “On Wednesday, August 15, I will advise you of the Board’s decision with respect to the ordinance.”
“Ultimately, if we are not in compliance, the State can shut the court down,” said Johnson. “They’ll be voting on whether to dissolve our court and move our cases to the Associate Circuit Court Judge. As far as I know, Lake Tapawingo is the only other community to have done this. Nobody our size is even considering not having three branches of government but us.”
Grandview’s Municipal Court collects fines and fees associated with traffic and city ordinance violations, and has accounted for roughly $1 million annually in net revenue to the City of Grandview the past two years, with previous years seeing even higher returns. Johnson said that revenues have been down due to the Grandview Police Department’s ticketing numbers decreasing.
“That’s all we do,” said Diederich. “We don’t go out and issue tickets; we don’t collect failure to appear fees because that’s not allowed. We don’t do any of that. Collections of fines and fees are down across the board. There’s a lot of turnover in police departments and it is a statewide issue, not just here. I think we are very proud of the changes we have made to be in compliance.”
Johnson added that they pride themselves on being a citizen-friendly court.
“We’ve got 81 years in Grandview, and now we’ve got someone coming in saying we don’t really need this court and it would be better not having it in our community,” said Johnson. “Instead of building tomorrow’s community here, we’re going backwards. It doesn’t benefit our community.”
If the Grandview Board of Aldermen votes to turn the municipal court over to the circuit court, Johnson said that the city will still have to have a prosecutor and likely a court clerk who will then have to electronically transfer all tickets and violations to the court system. The Associate Circuit would hear the Grandview cases along with all of the other caseload already there.
“That judge would use whatever he believes to be appropriate fines, and the circuit system will only allow 30 days to pay those fines,” said Johnson. “I believe there is a $25 cost to go on a payment plan, which we don’t have here. After 30 days, if you have not paid, it will then be turned over to whatever collection agency they choose. The City of Grandview would not see any part of that money until it is collected, after the circuit court assesses its own costs.”
It is unclear what the proceedings would look like because this is such a new concept for the associate circuit court, according to Johnson. He also feels that the City of Grandview will lose more in revenues than it would take to simply move the court offices as Johnson and Diederich recommended.
While the state ordinance says that a municipality can elect to have a municipal court which the municipality must pay for and provide staff to run, as far as Johnson knows, there is no precedence on who has the authority to shut a municipal court down.
“It’s brand new; no one else is doing this and there’s simply no research done on how this will look,” said Johnson. “Some other judges in the area have offered their help on this because they, too, think this is ridiculous.”
However, the City of Grandview says that these are unfunded mandates and other municipalities across the state have gone the route of transferring their courts or are in the process of doing so. According to Grandview City Administrator Cemal Gungor, there are 235 cities in Missouri whose cases are heard by circuit courts which include those who have historically done so.
“There are a number of other city’s because of what Senate Bill 5 has done, it has made a lot of cities reevaluate where they were, where they are and some of the other opportunities that we don’t know about that could be forthcoming impacting all types of city budgets,” said Grandview Mayor Leonard Jones.
Since the state passed Senate Bill 5, Gall said that Missouri has seen a number of cities transfer their courts to the associate circuit level. While Lake Tapawingo is the only city in Jackson County to do this, there are several in other counties in Missouri who have, including Platte City, Chillicothe and Washington.
The senate bills call for complete separation of municipal court activities, offices and records from city government. Senate Bill 5, specifically, is not settled, and numerous versions are still being circulated around Jefferson City. The bills are also up to the interpretation of whomever has the authority to implement the mandates.
“These unfunded mandates have specific requirements that are costing us money, and when you look at a small budget like ours, it makes us concerned,” said Gungor. “The other concern is that with complete separation, there is no administrative interaction with the court staff.”
While technically court staff are city employees, as they are on city payroll, receive city benefits, and so forth, Gungor said that when issues arise, specifically in the area of human resources, they are on their own. The Missouri Supreme Court has also mandated court automation, said Gall, which requires a new court software system.
“It remains to be seen what costs that might mean for the city,” said Gall. “We’ve been coexisting with the municipal court since 1978 and even before that, and there weren’t any problems or perceived problems until the new mandates came down. The playing field has changed.”
“We don’t know what other unfunded mandates may come out after this. We know what we know today, but, a scary thing for me, is what we don’t know,” said Jones. “What we don’t know is what we need to figure out for tomorrow.”
According to Gungor, 70 percent of the violations heard in Grandview Municipal Court are not residents of Grandview. If the aldermen determine to keep the court in Grandview, city administration will then have to determine what costs will be associated with the mandates and where the money will come from.
“They (Missouri Supreme Court) have made it clear that they want complete separation here,” said Gungor. “If that is what they want, then complete separation it is.”
Ultimately, the Grandview Board of Aldermen will determine what they feel is best suited for the City of Grandview, going forward. A public vote will take place during their regular session on Tuesday, August 14, 7 p.m., at Grandview City Hall.