East Lansing Judge Responds to Mayor’s Charge That Consolidation Concerns Are “Entirely Delusional”
Above from left: Mayor Mark Meadows and Judge Richard Ball
East Lansing’s City Council is scheduled to discuss a number of hot-button items at its meeting tomorrow, but there’s an increasingly heated one that isn’t on the docket: possible abolition of East Lansing’s 54B District Court as part of a county-wide consolidation of courts.
On Wednesday, the Lansing City Pulse published excerpts from an interview with East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows, who is participating in and defending talks aimed at administrative court consolidation.
Meadows sharply criticized those raising objections to the possible abolition of East Lansing’s 54B and Lansing’s 54A District Courts under a plan that would reorganize the 55th District Court to serve all of Ingham County.
Asked for a response to Meadows’ remarks, 54B’s Judges Andrea Larkin and Richard Ball decided Ball would speak to ELi on the record. (In 2012, Larkin defeated Meadows to win her seat with a 57 percent majority. Meadows later went on to run for Council.)
According to a state law passed during December’s lame duck session, Ingham County consolidation will go into effect if the Lansing and East Lansing City Councils and the Ingham County Board of Commissioners negotiate and all approve the same plan before November 1, 2019.
Before East Lansing’s Council passed a resolution to participate in those talks, Ball and Larkin along with other court personnel pleaded with Council to consider what could be lost in consolidation. Today, they are raising many of the same concerns. But Council so far has stayed mum, with no public discussion of the matter since last November.
Disagreement over what could happen to the specialty courts:
The 54B District Court currently runs three specialty courts: a sobriety (alcohol) court, a drug court, and the veterans’ treatment court.
According to City Pulse, “Meadows dismissed the notion that East Lansing’s specialty courts for veterans and those struggling with substance abuse would be jeopardized through consolidation. The idea is ‘entirely delusional,’ he said.”
Judge Ball called this remark by Meadows “offensive.” Ball notes, “The fact is that no supporter of consolidation has the authority or ability to guarantee continuation of these courts in their present form.”
That’s because state law would effectively empower whichever one of eight judges the Michigan Supreme Court names as chief of a consolidated court to decide many key aspects of court operations.
It is that control that Larkin and Ball are reluctant to see relinquished. Abolition of 54B would ultimately mean that East Lansing voters elect eight county-wide judges, with one chief judge chosen from those eight, instead of electing two judges, of whom one serves as chief. At 54B, Larkin currently serves as Chief, with Ball’s endorsement.
But Meadows told the City Pulse that “we don’t need to have local control in our courts.” He argues that the judicial branch is meant to be independent.
Will consolidation create more benefit than harm?
The original rationale for consolidation was specifically much greater cost savings than are now projected, and that’s part of what critics have a problem with – the sense that consolidation has become a solution looking for a problem.
Meadows told the City Pulse that the “bigger picture” benefit to consolidation is greater efficiencies. Quoted in the same article, Judge Thomas P. Boyd, Chief Judge of the 55th District Court, agreed.
Boyd told City Pulse, “I’d like to think that saving taxpayer dollars — and we’re still talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars [county-wide] — would still be a good sign,” Boyd said. “We still have a disjointed system that needs improvement. This is still about better service for less money.”
To this, Ball responds, “If there are inefficiencies that are related to the current boundaries of the 55th District Court, they are not the business of East Lansing’s mayor and in any event, if those inefficiencies are real and can be identified, they can be addressed by an agreement among the county’s district judges for concurrent jurisdiction.”
Ball explained that state law allows the judges in the three district courts to create agreements creating “concurrent jurisdiction” if they determine that such an approach would improve the courts’ systems.
Such a plan “could include an allocation of caseload and allocation of revenues” that is different from the existing one – enabling, for example, residents of Meridian Township to ultimately use the 54A district court instead of driving to Mason for the 55th district court.
A plan like this would have to be developed by the judges, approved by the Michigan Supreme Court, and OK'd by the units that fund the courts. But, says Ball, this is a way to address what Meadows and other proponents of consolidation now seem to say is the rationale for consolidation.
“There is no reason to consolidate the courts to solve issues of inconvenience,” concludes Ball.
Moreover, says Ball, “at this point, supporters of consolidation have for the first time raised the issue of inconveniences only after they have been unable to demonstrate there are financial savings that would result from consolidation.”
Then there’s the issue of wage-freezing for East Lansing court personnel:
Ball is particularly irked by the Mayor’s claim to the City Pulse that the wage-freezing that would occur for several years to East Lansing court personnel following a consolidation “doesn’t hurt anybody.”
Says Ball, “Mayor Meadows is ‘entirely delusional’ if he believes any employee whose earnings are frozen simply as a result of consolidation is not harmed. Further he apparently has no respect for those city employees or their applicable collective bargaining agreements.”
More criticism surfaces, but you won’t see it in the Council’s published communications:
Larkin and Ball have now been officially joined in their criticism of consolidation by 54B’s retired Judge David Jordon.
Jordon wrote a letter dated May 3 to tell East Lansing’s Council that this consolidation is ill-conceived, concluding, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Jordon also criticized how the matter is being handled by East Lansing’s City Council, writing, “Council is proceeding in this matter without any significant education, outreach and opportunity for citizen input.”
As ELi has reported, Council has also received a letter from the Friends of Ingham County Veterans’ Treatment Court and another from the Lansing chapter of the NAACP, both against consolidation.
Normally, letters and emails written to the City Council are included in Council’s agenda packets, so anyone can see what has been communicated to the legislative branch of East Lansing. Yet none of these three letters criticizing consolidation have shown up in Council packets.
Council and City staff have not responded to questions from ELi about why that is.
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