Aldermen vote 3-1 to eliminate city’s municipal court

Dave Marner
Managing Editor

Citing concerns over compliance with new municipal court regulations, along with reporting mandates, Owensville aldermen on Monday voted 3-1 to eliminate  theirs and have local cases adjudicated at the associate circuit court level.

Cathy Lahmeyer’s motion to disband the city’s municipal court included the provision to review the matter one year after the circuit takes over hearing city cases.

Ward 2 Alderman Rob Borgmann, the board’s president, cast the lone dissenting vote to Lahmeyer’s motion which received a second from Ward 2’s Denise Bohl.

Kevin McFadden, of Ward 1, noted his vote was “not a strong aye,” adding, “I can’t see any way out of it.”

Compliance with a Missouri Supreme Court ruling mandating separation of duties between municipal court clerks, city staff, and police personnel was cited repeatedly throughout the discussion Monday and in a workshop held Thursday which included input from the city’s attorney and prosecuting attorney.

With the recent terminal illness diagnosis and eventual death in late 2018 of the city’s court administrator, Rhonda Newman, aldermen faced the question of hiring a replacement for the position or eliminating the court altogether. Aldermen on Thursday during their workshop session with their attorney, Ed Sluys with Curtis, Heinz, Garrett & O’Keefe, learned there was not complete separations of duties between the court clerk, police staff, and city staff as being interpreted through Rule 37 governing municipal courts.

A court clerk should not, he said, take utility payments or answer phones as a fill-in staff member at City Hall. Sluys called those duties were considered “executive branch” duties and not something a clerk in the judicial branch should be handling.

“You can’t have dual responsibilities at all,” Sluys told aldermen.

Some municipalities were going so far as building walls in shared offices to separate their court staff from regular city business,  creating a “physical separation,” Sluys told aldermen. But, he told them then, “If you disband, you can recreate your court locally” at a later date. “It’s unknown how difficult that would be,” he added.

Scott Fulford, the city court’s prosecuting attorney, was also in attendance at the Jan. 3 workshop and said what Owensville was facing is a story being repeated across Missouri.

“This discussion you’re having here about going to state court is one many municipalities are having,” Fulford told the board and staff present for the workshop.

The city would need to upgrade its reporting software to comply with statewide courts reporting being required. The city did not have either system, their deputy clerk, Peggy Farrell told aldermen.

Fulford told aldermen if it was a “simple  money issue, add the costs up” if that would help them make their decision. Or, he asked them, was it a question of “more control locally versus loss of control” over their court cases?

Mayor John Kamler noted it “wasn’t so much a control issue” and that the city could afford to replace a staff member. “It’s kind of a wash,” the mayor said. “I’m just kind of leery of the unknowns.”

Borgmann was supportive of hiring staff, getting the upgrades on software, and having staff trained on the reporting being required. 

Sluys suggested the city could contact the Office of State Court Administration (OSCA) to set up a time-line to become in complete compliance with new staffing.

“If a city is trying, they will work with you,” Sluys said. 

Kamler expressed concerns about how nuisance violations would be handled in the circuit setting. Fulford told him local ordinances were “always challenged because they’re vague. What constitutes junk?”

Fulford noted municipal courts are typically held in the evening while circuit sessions are in the day. He said the city would likely be assigned a specific hour or two hour period for their docket once a month. The circuit courts can not deny the city’s request to handle their case loads, city staff was told by court officials. Getting the circuit to schedule handling city cases could take up to six month or more, staff was also told.

Sluys told aldermen their 30 to 50 cases each month was “not a huge volume” but “property cases were problematic” at times.

“But, these are an important to us and we want to keep it that way,” Sluys added.

That message could be relayed to the circuit judge by the prosecutor, he suggested.

Fulford  told aldermen he “knows nuisance violations are important to the city.” He reminded them that the county’s associate circuit judge — Ada Brehe-Krueger — is a former municipal prosecutor. “She understands the importance of that to a city,” he said. “She spent years prosecuting those.”

Fulford said he spoke with circuit court staff. “They didn’t seem upset that this could be coming down the pipe,” he said.

Decision time

Aldermen discussed the issue over a 45-minute period in their workshop last week and spent about 30 minutes Monday coming to the their decision to take their court docket to the associate circuit court.

“I’m afraid we’ll get lost in the shuffle and it will just disappear,” said Borgmann on Monday about taking their nuisance violations cases to circuit court.

“Why not go forward and try it for a 6-month trial period? Give it a good trial and see where it goes,” said Lahmeyer adding they could extend the trial period out a year or 18 months.

City Marshal Robert Rickerd was asked by McFadden if the police force had any major concerns about the potential loss of the court.

Rickerd told McFadden the concern was not having to attend potential trials in Hermann if the court was moved to the circuit court, but, “the biggest concern was nuisance violations.” Noting the city’s prosecuting attorney had told them Thursday he was fully aware of the city’s desire to enforce its nuisance ordinance violations, Rickerd said, “I feel comfortable Scott will address that and keep that a priority.”

McFadden made one more “point of consideration” if the city was thinking about revisiting having court after allowing it to go to the circuit, saying, “Once you take something away it’s more difficult to bring it back, especially something of this magnitude.”

Borgmann made one final pitch to retain local control of their courts, saying he had  “seen a lot more on that side,” hinting at a family issue, but added he couldn’t comment in detail.

Lahmeyer added an addendum to her motion that the Board of Aldermen would review the proposal one year after local cases began being heard at the associate circuit level. The issue will need to be formally approved by ordinance.