Tuscola County Courthouse

(File photo)

The fate of 126 square feet in the Tuscola County Courthouse has been placed in the hands of a higher power.

The buildings and grounds committee of the Tuscola County Board of Commissioners will determine the fate of the room set aside for the Michigan Indigent Defense Counsel.

The commissioners reached that decision Thursday, after controller/administrator Clayette Zechmeister had a phone meeting with District Court Judge Jason Bitzer, Circuit Court Judge Amy Grace Gierhart, court administrator Sheila Long and the MIDC’s Barb Klimaszewski and Rahm Mormando. Long wants the space for the magistrate’s clerks so they can work safely under COVID-19 social distance restrictions. The MIDC, which provides legal counsel to those who can’t afford it, wants to keep the space to use for meetings with clients before pre-trials and arraignments.

“What you have now is in compliance,” Klimaszewski said. “If you eliminate that space, you have two problems. One is the grant paid for the space, and the other is I don’t believe there would be adequate space to meet standards.”

The MIDC has an office across State Street from the courthouse, she said, but isn’t set up to handle the interviews. It lacks a waiting room. And it is across the street from the courthouse, so going from arraignments to pre-trials, with a meeting across the street in between, will bog down the court system in delays.

“It would be almost impossible to make that work,” she said.

Gierhart disagreed.

“The MIDC should be prepared and ready to go,” she said, “prior to the time of the hearing, whether it is in front of the magistrate or the judge.”

District 4 Commissioner Dan Grimshaw said the compliance plan for MIDC and the current contract say the requirements are being met by the two meeting rooms already in place in the courthouse.

“There isn’t a single thing in here that says anything about a meeting room down by the magistrate’s office in this plan,” he said. “As a condition, or anything else.”

Gierhart recommended against giving the space to the magistrate’s office. The two conference rooms upstairs in the courthouse fill that purpose right now, she added.

“The rooms are available,” Bitzer said. “I would like to see the agreement as well because the standard doesn’t necessarily guarantee they have unfettered access to a space whenever they want to.”

Bitzer said the two conference rooms aren’t used that much or that often but it occasionally might mean MIDC and its clients might have to wait a while to have a conference room to use.

But, Klimaszewski said, when the courthouse is back in full operations, those rooms will be in regular use by others.

“I don’t think it is fair for us to put the extra burden on the MIDC program,” she said.

She said other attorneys have used the MIDC meeting room from time to time, when Mormando wasn’t using it. “The normal situation is they generally have the opportunity in their own office” or they have the other two rooms.

The battle over the MIDC meeting room, however, is just the indication of another issue at the courthouse.

“This may be pointing to a bigger problem,” Grimshaw said. “Maybe we just flat don’t have enough room. We need to look at some alternative solutions to solving this issue.”

Some offices, he said, may have to be moved out of the courthouse in order to provide space for more crucial services. But, he said, the county gets reimbursed by the state for use of some of the space in the courthouse. 

“If there is anything we can do, that is not going to cost us money, we should do them,” he said. “If (clerk) Jodi (Fetting) is running out of space in her office, we have to deal with that and we need to know the cost ramifications of that.”

Bitzer also said the backlog created by the COVID-19 outbreak might require even more staff in the magistrate’s office, which he called the busiest office in the courthouse.

“We need to prioritize the magistrate’s office,” he said, “because if we don’t have the appropriate amount of staff down there, taking care of this backlog, people are not going to have things done in the timely manner they expect.”

The commissioners’ buildings and grounds committee plans to tour the courthouse before meeting with the judges, Long, Klimaszewski and Mormando to discuss what steps to take.

“Definitely, there are a lot of questions over this 126 square feet,” buildings and grounds supervisor Mike Miller said. “I think it would be good for whoever is making the decision to take a tour and you can see for yourself.”

“In my opinion, we need to get it right,” District 4 Commissioner Mark Jensen said. “We are talking 126 square feet and if it is going to cost us $100,000, that’s pretty expensive.”

Mark Haney is a staff writer for The Advertiser. He can be reached at haney@tcadvertiser.com.