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Judge, Watertown officials to talk about adding courtroom to City Hall

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WATERTOWN — The Fifth Judicial District’s top judge will come to Watertown May 6 to hash out what the city should do about adding a second courtroom at City Hall.

Judge James C. Tormey, the Fifth Judicial District’s administrative judge who oversees City Court, will meet with the City Council and other city officials to talk about their disagreement over converting first-floor space at City Hall to accommodate the promotion of Catherine J. Palermo to full-time judge.

Two weeks ago, Judge Tormey criticized the city for objecting to the second courtroom. In a strongly worded April 9 email, the judge contended that having a second City Court judge and still only one courtroom at City Hall was causing a backlog of cases.

City officials are concerned about spending an estimated $1.5 million on the courtroom project. So they informed Judge Tormey last month that they did not intend to add the second courtroom.

On Monday, Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham said a meeting might help getting both sides on the same page regarding another courtroom, since they have been communicating only in telephone calls, emails and the media.

“I really believe it’s good to learn what he has to say and what we have to say,” Mayor Graham said.

Under state law, the city must provide a second courtroom for Judge Palermo to be a full-time judge, according to court administration officials. That would allow the two judges to hear cases simultaneously.

While the state pays the salaries of judges and court staff, the city would have to pay for the renovations.

During his visit to Watertown, Judge Tormey also will meet with City Manager Sharon A. Addison, City Engineer Kurt W. Hauk and other city staff. They intend to tour the facilities, Ms. Addison said.

Since the issue came up this winter, the city and the court administration have traded schematics on how a second courtroom could be added. The city proposed reconfiguring court offices for use as a courtroom. Judge Tormey suggested that turning the code enforcement office into one might be simpler and less expensive.

In 2012, more than 9,000 cases were handled in City Court, including 2,452 criminal, 5,773 traffic summonses, 708 civil cases, 235 small claims and 579 summary proceedings. The court is in use about 240 days a year.

Judge Palermo became the second city magistrate April 1 thanks to legislation approved last year by the state Legislature. Judge Eugene R. Renzi was elected to the full-time position in November 2011.

The city also has been wrangling with a decision that unarraigned suspects arrested by city police no longer can be held in the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building. No longer permitted to be held in the county jail, the suspects now are taken to a pair of holding cells in the City Court wing of City Hall to await their arraignments.

The change was made April 16 after Sheriff John P. Burns notified the city he had been instructed by the state Commission of Correction that it was against state law to keep city-arrested suspects in the county jail.

As a way to help solve the problem, Judge Tormey temporarily appointed three town justices to act as City Court judges to help with overnight and weekend arraignments of suspects who cannot be held in the county jail.

Ms. Addison said Tuesday that the new procedures were working out well.

“We’re handling the new process,” she said. “There’s been no hiccups; there’s been no glitches.”

Police have been using a combination of patrol officers on duty and those on overtime to oversee suspects in the two holding cells in City Hall. So far, seven suspects have been housed there, police said.

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