Years after putting the idea of a Sag Harbor Village Justice Court on the backburner, amid lawsuits and promises by Southampton Town to improve its court system with an additional judge and video arraignments, trustees are once more moving towards the creation of a Sag Harbor Village Justice Court.
During a work session on Thursday, October 22 Sag Harbor Mayor Brian Gilbride broached the topic with fellow board members, noting Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Tom Fabiano has suggested revisiting the idea on a few occasions. Fabiano, said Gilbride, is concerned about the impending move of Southampton Town’s justice court – where a majority of Sag Harbor cases are heard – to Hampton Bays, which would prove even more costly to the village in transportation and overtime pay than the current commute to Southampton Village.
However, it is not just costs, but the possibility of additional revenue into the village coffers and giving residents a more convenient location to pay for their parking tickets, that has made the concept of a justice court in Sag Harbor desirable to village officials for a number of years.
In late 2005, the village justice court became more than a concept as the village held a public hearing on the proposed plan in December of that year after discovering the new court had the potential to bring in over $300,000 in revenue, netting Sag Harbor almost $150,000 more than it currently takes in through justice courts in East Hampton and Southampton. Fundamental Business Services, a firm that also helped Southampton Village create its own justice court, provided the village with this data.
In addition to increased revenues, village officials also cited problems with the town courts, including concern that tickets issued in the village were dismissed too often and cases delayed. The village police force is also taxed, in that they have to travel to the two justice courts, taking them out of the village and creating overtime costs. The inconvenience for residents’ that now have to travel to one of the two locations to pay fines and fees or plead their cases was also a consideration, as was simply having local control and enforcement for traffic, building and code violations and even some criminal charges.
The court was imagined as having just one full-time elected justice, with a second justice serving any days the elected justice could not hold court. In 2005, it was estimated that it would cost just over $80,000 – with $20,000 representing initial start-up costs – to run the court annually.
The plan was temporarily derailed in June 2006 after a state Supreme court justice ruled against the village in a suit brought by local attorney Patricia Weiss. Weiss’s suit was successful on one count – that the village board had not officially passed a resolution creating the court.
In 2007, the village board decided to hold off on the justice court after hearing that Southampton Town planned to add a fourth judge to its court and was looking into video arraignments and did not intend to move the court to Hampton Bays. However, two years later, with the knowledge the town court will move to Hampton Bays this January and with little headway made in the creation of a video arraignment system in the town, Sag Harbor appears to be close to establishing its own justice court again.
On Thursday, village attorney Fred W. Thiele, Jr. said that similar to the last time a justice court was created it would be subject to permissive referendum meaning anyone opposed to the action could collect signatures representing 20 percent of the village population, or 87 residents, to force a village-wide vote on the matter.
“You would have to start from scratch,” said Thiele, warning the board should expect a petition and even possible litigation given the court’s history.
Mayor Gilbride said, as the issue was not time sensitive, he would like to continue the discussion amongst the board.
Meanwhile, in Southampton Town, that board is considering a video arraignment system in Hampton Bays, in part, to save money for Sag Harbor. During a work session on Friday, October 23, Judge Deborah Kooperstein told the board that video arraignments are a cost cutting measure, especially for Sag Harbor Village Police.
Although the board noted the importance of installing such a system, they debated how to finance the project. The town had already set aside $225,000 two years ago for video arraignments in the capital budget, said supervisor Linda Kabot, but has also applied for a grant. Town Management Services Administrator Richard Blowes said he would not know if they have been awarded the grant for another six to eight months and doubted the town would win the grant funds.
The town’s justice court is slated to move into the new facility by January, at the latest. Judge Kooperstein said it is imperative to have the video equipment installed and operation prior to the relocation.
Kabot and councilman Chris Nuzzi supported bonding for the money to purchase the video equipment.
“We have been talking for months that the capital fund is in a deficit. Here is $225,000 that has gone unspent. It could be bonded and [the cash] could be put back in the general fund,” argued Nuzzi.
Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst seemed to support spending the money already in the capital fund.
“This money is going to be spent in one form or another. Why not spend it now while we need it now,” said Throne-Holst.
With additional reporting by Marissa Maier