Last Wednesday night, Jefferson City Hall was packed with people. The Council Chambers were filled to standing room only. People lined the back walls and those that couldn't find a spot in the room waited in the hallway and outside the building.
The hundreds of people at City Hall were attending weekly municipal court proceedings, but starting this week those proceedings are switching from nights to days, bringing some concerns as to how City Hall will be able to do business for other members of the public.
In early April, Judge Cotton Walker announced that the city's municipal court would switch its weekly night proceedings to days on a trial basis beginning in June, partly in an attempt to save money. Beginning Wednesday, municipal court will no longer have arraignments or payment dockets in the evenings. Arraignments instead will begin at 8:30 a.m. Wednesdays, with the payment, or show cause, docket beginning at 10:30 a.m. The trial docket, which currently begins at 8:30 a.m. Wednesdays, will begin at 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays.
For now, the switch is temporary. Walker said the court staff will assess the change in August and decide whether to continue that schedule through the end of the fiscal year and into the next one.
But that switch comes with concerns. Municipal court, especially during show cause dockets, tends to bring hundreds of people to City Hall and, during business hours, there often are city meetings being held and members of the public coming in and out to use city services.
Walker said one of the hopes he has for the switch is that it will help to cut down on the larger dockets the court sees. He also noted that municipal court has always operated in the morning, though those proceedings tend to have far less people than night proceedings.
He said the show cause docket will be spread out from week to week, instead of doing one show cause docket per month, which should help cut down on the amount of people over time. The first few dockets, he said, likely will be crowded before the court finds its stride.
"That's our courtroom," Walker said. "It happens to be in City Hall."
Walker said the switch hopefully will help to cut costs for a city that is struggling to deal with declining revenues. The trial run of daytime proceedings should be able to make the police overtime costs a bit more manageable, he said.
"We were nudged into the trial by the budget issues," Walker said. "We got feedback from (the police) that it would be a little more manageable if it was daytime."
City attorney Drew Hilpert, who also acts as court administrator, said as long as the dockets are being cut to a more reasonable size, which is one of Walker's goals, then the daytime proceedings should be manageable.
"It's certainly an issue that certain people in City Hall are anxious about," Hilpert said.
City Administrator Nathan Nickolaus said city staff does have concerns about security and the impact on those doing business at City Hall.
"I'm concerned about the impact on our ability to maintain services," Nickolaus said. "I am trying to run offices here and with that volume of people it could get disruptive, (but) I think we've got plans in place to handle it."
The primary security for municipal court is the use of Jefferson City police officers and municipal court bailiff Donny Schulte. Because of the switch to days, the court will lose Schulte, who works as a deputy marshal in the Cole County court during the days.
Last fall, the City Council approved the addition of a security staff and metal detector for municipal court, which will continue operating Wednesdays.
"To some extent one of the advantages to doing it during the day is you've got more eyes kind of watching things," Nickolaus said. "We'll have to adjust."
Walker said the loss of Schulte as bailiff, while not ideal, does not cause concerns for him. He said Schulte has agreed to work with the police department to specifically identify court security needs and help train the officers.
"The police department does a great job of providing the officers and knowing what their role is in the courtroom," Walker said. "We have not had any security issues."
Hilpert said if the switch to days becomes permanent, the city may look at hiring a bailiff to replace Schulte, as long as the necessary funds are available.
At a Transportation and Traffic Commission meeting last month, Sgt. Doug Ruediger mentioned that municipal court had previously tried switching from nights to days, but the change did not work out.
Ruediger said he actually was not with the city when court did day proceedings, but had heard that from other, older officers who have been with the city longer. He could not say when it was the city tried daytime proceedings.
When asked about any previous change from night court to day proceedings, Walker, Nickolaus and Hilpert all said they had no knowledge of municipal court ever operating solely during the day.
"If it was, that's news to me," Walker said.
Nickolaus, who began with the city as prosecutor in the early '90s, said he had never heard of any previous attempt, but did not doubt Ruediger's comments.