City hopes second judge brings 'efficiency'

West Point City Judge Bennie Jones makes a point during Tuesday's meeting as Selectmen William Binder and Ken Poole listen.
Staff Writer

West Point hopes two city judges will streamline caseloads and expedite justice, but the current city judge isn't sure that will happen.

In a special meeting Tuesday, Selectmen appointed attorney Mark Cliett to serve as city judge along with current City Judge Bennie Jones.

The two judges will split the $25,000 set aside for the part-time position.

City Court Clerk Monica Lairy said Tuesday, "We'll make it work out. We already are working on some schedules."

One proposed schedule would have one judge handling the first two Tuesdays and Fridays of the month and another handling the last two Tuesdays and Fridays of the month.

They would alternate any fifth Tuesdays and Fridays under the proposed plan, which those involved acknowledged will take some adjustments.

But with the two judges, the court could end up with more court dates.

Some logistical issues that will have to be worked out involve any potential conflict where Cliett and City Prosecutor Michelle Easterling are on opposite sides of cases that might have some tie to city court.

"Those are things we'll all just have to communicate about and coordinate," Easterling said Tuesday.

The 3-1 vote came after several weeks of internal discussions that came to a head, in part, after court went to 8 p.m. recently.

And although Jones called that a "fluke" that occurred because court had not been held in several days, Selectmen said that was exactly the situation they are trying to avoid happening again.

Furthermore, the issue is not that more than $1 million in unpaid fines that have built up over the last decade, Selectmen stressed.

"This is not a strike against you at all. And we are not here primarily for the court fines, we here for more efficiency and moving cases through. We felt like if we could lighten the caseload we can get more done during the week, get more cases done sooner," Selectman Ken Poole said.

"This is not any ill will toward you. This is an adjustment. If this system doesn't pan out, if we look at it and we are going down a dead end, we'll make another adjustment," added Selectman Jasper Pittman.

The change will reduce Jones' hours but not his eligibility for city insurance. He's been city judge since March 2013.

While Pittman, Poole and Selectman Leta Turner voted for the second judge, Selectman William Binder voted no. Selectman Keith McBrayer was absent.

"I think the judge is doing a great job and I don't think this is going to solve the issue," Binder said, noting the previous Board of Selectmen looked at the same issue but decided against it.
In the region, Columbus is the only city with two judges.

"I'm just trying to understand the dynamics of a second judge. I think we have a real good system now," Jones told the board. "I'm not aware of a problem. I think we have a pretty efficient system. I'm looking for insight as to why you want to bring in another judge."

Since 2014, legislative changes and court rulings have altered the way courts work, putting an increased focus on the "due process rights" of the accused.

That's impacted how every judge at all levels handles cases, Jones told the board.

To navigate the system and mete out justice while still protecting the integrity of the courts and punishments, city court uses payment plants, community service and other options to try to work with defendants, he said.

"All that's been working pretty good," he stated.
Problems with court running into the night have been rectified he said.
"Sometimes we can't control how many cases we have, how many tickets have been written, how many arrests have been made and how long some of those cases take," he explained.
"With these new rules, it won't matter who the judge is, we have to abide by the rules," he added, saying he will be happy to work with the new judge to bring him "up to par" during the transition, which Jones said he thought would take six months.

Cliett said Tuesday he is happy about the new opportunity, which begins Oct. 1.
"It's good for me and I think will be good for the city and court system, having two people sharing the load and trying to get cases done," Cliett said.

Once the new judge starts, Lairy and her staff with divide up cases as they come in, setting up two different dockets.

Police officers who write tickets and make arrests also will have to be made aware of new court dates and availability.

"We'll have to work out new kinks to be able to assign cases on an equal and fair basis," Jones said.

While the $1 million in unpaid fines by more than 1,500 people may not be the motivating factor, it has been lurking in the background.

"One of the jobs of the Finance Committee is to keep revenues coming in and expenses down," Pittman said. "Looking at a trend, we are a $1 million in fines now and we could get to $1.5 million in the future."

"Revenues in municipal courts across the state have dropped," Jones countered, noting the backlog in fines dates back more than a decade.

In Columbus, revenues in city court are less than half what they were five years ago.

"I predict revenue is not going to go up. And I want to clarify, the court is run efficiently. I'm not saying I'm the best judge in the stat, but I'm a pretty good one. And I learn every day," Jones concluded.


In other business during Tuesday's special meeting, Selectmen:

-- Put off naming someone to the West Point Housing Authority Board because no one has applied for the position which has been vacant for several months. The board meets once a quarter.

"Looks like we need a volunteer," Turner said.

-- Revised the date property tax bills are due to Oct. 1 to Nov. 15. Taxes usually are due in September and early October, but tax bills have not gone out yet because the state was late in certifying city and county property tax rolls.