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Letter to the Editor: Making Sense About the New Courthouse

 

I am deeply grateful to Plumas News and its forerunners for indulging my occasional letters over the years.  As a last effort, I will try to bring some moderation to the new courthouse issue.

Debate about the site for a new courthouse has become too heated.  A little balance is needed.  After speaking to many on both sides of the issue, people with experience in the process, and those knowledgeable about the functioning of the courts, the issue becomes much clearer.

First, some people are speaking as if the citizens of the Project Advisory Group or the Board of Supervisors are villains, trying to foist something on the rest of us.  In particular, I have heard the claim that the state always chooses what the local committee recommends.  The day state government is actually that responsive to local wishes we would all break out the champagne (or sparkling cider).

Searching the relevant website https://www.courts.ca.gov/2567.htm makes it clear that the state has its usual massive set of standards and procedures.  Speaking to people with deep familiarity, it became clear that the court system is much more dependent upon the other branches of government (the executive branch for administration and ownership of facilities, and the legislature for funding) than I had previously understood.  The independence of the courts is delicately reliant on the good opinion of the public, and they are correspondingly reluctant to be pulled into local controversies.

When I put these insights together, the role of the local group is easier to understand.  They do the initial leg work for the bureaucracy, and they do the frontline flak-catching for the judiciary.

Seen in this framework, there are no bad guys here.  Plumas County is strapped for money.  The Board of Supervisors would have been irresponsible to refuse a Dame Shirley Park site.  Selling the ground to the state would mean we get a new building and get paid to accept it.

The PAG filled out the state’s template, viewable in generic form at: https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/site_selection_acquisition_policy.pdf

Any honest person glancing through that checklist would have to concede that Dame Shirly Park would score higher on than any other site in the county.  John Kolb, doing his usual fine job for us, proposed to mitigate the impact using lot line adjustments, and asking for a three-story building, instead of just two.  If this were done, we would have had as much green space at Dame Shirley as we have now.  But it was always going to be a heavy lift for this local idea to be accepted by the state.  Their priorities are rather too elaborate to adapt.

On that subject, see the 438-page long “California Trial Court Facilities Standards 2020” at:

https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/2020_CTCFS_20_11_13.pdf

The state also has other concerns that it expresses behind closed doors.  Speaking to people who were on the Advisory Group this time and the last time (over a decade ago), the state’s consistent first priority is actually security.  That explains why the specifications for courthouses are so tightly delineated, not just building by building, but room by room.  The more recent priority of being xeriscaped to save water fits with this.  No trees or thick bushes to block the view of cameras and security personnel around the courthouse.

So it is no surprise that the latest news is disappointing.  The state’s initial plan is for their site to come right to the sidewalk of Main Street.  Had John’s plan gone through, I would have supported it, but it seems that is not on the table.

As reasonable as the Dame Shirly Park site is, that is not the answer.  Plumas County has been ravaged by fire, bad policy, and climate change.  But I think we are not ready to give up on being a place that is green.  Having a secure, semi-desert building at the center of the county seat would only hurt our community health in the long run.  A place has to have some identity and some vision.  For that, symbolism matters.  We are not, and do not want to be, desertified.  Let Dame Shirley Park stay green.

Scott Corey

Quincy

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