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Courthouse in YM County, Minn., is subject of renovation discussions

The jury room is too small to accommodate 12 chairs around its table, and closet-sized bathrooms open directly into the room. Citing concerns about security and maintaining the integrity of the court system, Eighth Judicial District staff urged the Yellow Medicine County board of commissioners to consider upgrades to the court facilities in the courthouse in Granite Falls.1 / 2
Cheryl Eckhardt, court administrator for Yellow Medicine, Chippewa and Lac qui Parle counties, and Tim Ostby, Eighth Judicial District Administrator, are shown in the small waiting area outside the second floor courtroom in Granite Falls. At times there are as many as 15 to 20 people, including defendants, victims and witnesses, crowded together in the area.2 / 2

GRANITE FALLS -- Citing concerns about security and maintaining the integrity of the judicial process, Eighth Judicial District staff urged the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday to make major improvements to the court services area of the courthouse in Granite Falls.

"If you look at the facilities now, it's not adequate,'' Yellow Medicine County Attorney Keith Helgeson told the commissioners Tuesday during their meeting in Granite Falls. He said the preferred solution would be to move court services from the second floor of the 1889 courthouse building to the first floor.

The county is planning to move its administrative, assessor, auditor-treasurer and property offices -- now located on the first floor of the courthouse -- to the Fagen Engineering building the county is in the process of purchasing in downtown Granite Falls.

The plans to move those offices and remodel the courthouse make this the right time to offer suggestions for improving security and other issues associated with court operations, according to District Judge Dwayne Knutsen.

The judge was joined Tuesday by Judicial District Administrator Tim Ostby, Yellow Medicine County Sheriff Bill Flaten and Court Administrator Cheryl Eckhardt, who serves Yellow Medicine, Chippewa and Lac qui Parle counties, in expressing concerns about the current situation.

What Knutsen called a "very small" waiting area outside the second-floor courtroom is the most pressing security concern. There are times when as many as 15 to 20 people are crowded into the waiting area. The mix of people often includes defendants, victims and witnesses.

Some defendants arrive by elevator or stairway into the midst of the people with no warning. "It's unsecure ... by anybody's measure,'' Judge Knutsen said.

He also expressed concerns about a jury room that is so small it is impossible to place 12 chairs around its table. Separate, closet-sized bathrooms for men and women open directly into the room.

"We have to be concerned about how we treat these people,'' Knutsen said, citing the sacrifices jurors make to serve.

A lack of space also means it is impossible to keep jurors segregated from others observing court proceedings.

Recently, a two-day trial ended as a mistrial shortly after deliberations got under way. It was learned that observers of the trial, who had apparently supported the defendant, spoke to a juror earlier that day. The juror had been unable to avoid the contact.

Sheriff Flaten also expressed concerns about security when escorting defendants to the court. Deputies must lead the defendants through the first floor of the courthouse amidst all of the public offices. There are also times when the deputy and a defendant or defendants must wait in the public area for the court appearance.

Technology changes are also coming to the district's courts, and now would be an opportune time to make the changes needed to accommodate them, Ostby told the commissioners.

He noted that the district has lost about 30 to 40 percent of its staff in the last 10 years. It is working to take advantage of technology to handle work from other districts via electronic communication.

Knusten said there has been a rise in the number of criminal cases as well as the severity of offenses, including more crimes involving violence or drugs, making attention to security all the more important.

The commissioners asked about the long-term prospects for maintaining a seated judge in Granite Falls, and whether possible regionalization would affect how the system operates.

The judge and district court personnel said the current caseload warrants the seating of a judge, and again emphasized the importance of maintaining the integrity of the system.

"When they walk in the door, you want the public to have confidence that government works and that the court system works and that they feel safe and secure and that there is a facility that is adequate,'' Knutsen said.

Board chairman Gary Johnson said the commissioners would look very strongly at responding to the concerns, but cautioned that it would take time to move forward.

Commissioner Greg Renneke said he had been a defendant in a civil case, and as a result of the space issues, he had to sit next to the plaintiff through the proceedings.

"I understand exactly what you're talking about here,'' he said.

County Attorney Helgeson urged the commissioners to move forward, warning: "The best way to lose our judge here is to not have adequate facilities.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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