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City debates election of second full-time judge

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If one Watertown city judge must be elected, then the new second full-time city magistrate should be as well, Councilman Joseph M. Butler Jr. said Monday night at the City Council meeting.

He said the city should look at what it would take to get home-rule legislation passed by the state Legislature for the second city judge also to be an elected position.

Part-time City Judge Catherine J. Palermo, 45, will become Watertown’s second full-time judge after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation Dec. 19 to increase the number of full-time city judges across the state. The state Legislature passed the measure last spring.

Judge Eugene R. Renzi, the other full-time city magistrate, is an elected official. But Ms. Palermo’s position is an appointed one.

If the situation remains as is, the mayor would have to appoint someone to fill the position of second full-time judge for a 10-year term and seek council members’ consent.

Ms. Palermo’s full-time status becomes effective April 1; her term ends in 2018.

Mr. Butler said the issue needs to be resolved before then. “It’s too powerful of an appointment to be the mayor’s, whoever it is at that time,” he said.

Mr. Butler said he talked briefly to City Attorney Robert J. Slye about the procedure that would be needed to make it an elected position.

But Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham said it’s too early to determine what to do, saying the city should “find out the reasoning” why the state Legislature and the state Office of Court Administration decided to make it an appointed position.

However, he agreed the issue should be resolved long before Judge Palermo’s term is up, noting that she is well aware she may end up having to run to keep her position for another term.

The matter came up when the mayor gave an update on discussions city staff has had with state Fifth Judicial District officials about what the city will be required to do to provide more space in City Hall to accommodate the second judge and her clerk.

It is too early to know the cost of renovations, Mr. Graham said.

The state pays the judges’ and staff’s salaries. Both full-time city judges will earn an annual salary of $133,000, according to state Fifth Judicial District officials.

City Council members appointed Judge Palermo in January 2012, when City Judge James C. Harberson retired. She replaced Judge Renzi after he was elected to the full-time position in November 2011.

City courts around the state have been handling an increasing number of cases each year, putting pressure on judges and creating a backlog of litigation. Now that there is a second full-time judge, more civil and small-claims cases can be handled in City Court, Mr. Graham said.

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