The Cottonwood City Council recently renewed the contract of Magistrate A. Douglas Lasota, despite a reported review from one council member that the court could be more efficiently run without him, by contracting for services with another local court.
The City Council is asking all departments citywide to cut their budgets by 3 percent. City staff haven’t received a cost of living increase in three years. Eliminating the salary of a judge would allow the city the save a little more funding that could be used for these other departments.
Councilwoman Tosca Henry compiled the data showing how the court could work more efficiently. She did not provide it to the rest of council before the meeting, so her fellow council members were ill-informed. The rest of council wanted to see the documents — and selfishly as journalists, we would have loved to have written a story on those numbers — but rather than table the vote, share the data and wait two weeks to decide, council instead voted to renew Lasota’s contract for another two years.
This not only means Henry’s work was wasted, but also taxpayers might be saddled with a potentially fiscally inefficient court for the next two years when a readily-available solution was at hand.
How is this good governance? Vice Mayor Karen Pfeifer, Councilman Ruben Jauregui and Councilwoman Deb Althouse all said they wanted more information on the matter, with both Pfeifer and Althouse saying they had trouble making a decision without the data.
It would have been fair for Lasota, too, to see what efficiencies the city was examining to determine if the city’s complaints were issues he could solve under a new contract or see if there were insurmountable deficiencies in his management of the court that would be better solved with a new intergovernmental agreement with another municipality.
By all accounts, Lasota is a dutiful judge, and his qualifications to handle the city’s judicial matters are not in question, this was merely a issue of fiscal responsibility.
The vote also raises big questions for taxpayers. Is Lasota running a fiscally responsible court with their tax money? Are taxpayers getting the most for their money? Will the court hemorrhage cash for the next two years until a new council has the courage to re-examine this issue and improve functionality? Most importantly, and perhaps the biggest threat is: Are plaintiffs and defendants being properly served by the city’s court?
The American court is the last refuge for equality and fairness in our civil society. A municipal court generally does not handle trials or big cases, which are transferred to other courts, but whether it’s a simple municipal court primarily used to argue parking tickets and file restraining orders or the hallowed chamber wherein nine justices make the final ruling on matters of national importance, a court is a uniformly sacred space of secular jurisprudence.
If the local court is being improperly managed or inefficient, it places our rights to due process and right to a fair trial in question, which no taxpayer and no citizen can abide.