The Reno City Council’s decision to avoid last week appointing a new judge for the Reno Municipal Court will violate city rules if a judge is not appointed within 30 days, and now the council will consider on Wednesday abolishing the judge’s department altogether.
Agenda item D4 for the Oct. 28 Reno City Council meeting, if approved, would abolish Reno Municipal Court Department 4. The city charter says the city only has to have one court department.
The resolution was pushed by Councilmember Jenny Brekhus, and Councilmember Devon Reese said it is in the city’s purview to consider the department’s removal.
Brekhus protested the delay in the appointment.
“It’s very, very clear,” she said about the timeframe. “This is all about the checks and balances in our charter.”
Brekhus said abolishing the department would give the council more time to review budgetary concerns and give the council the ability to interview applicants.
“The council should have been able to deliberate on these options,” she said. “We have to follow the charter and appoint by the end of the month, or we don’t have to appoint if the department doesn’t exist.”
The resolution likely has little support. One reason is its caseload and the types of cases the court handles.
“The Reno Municipal Court is one of the more busy courts in the state. The workload speaks for itself,” Reno Municipal Court Administrator Steve Tuttle told This Is Reno. “As you know, [specialty] courts are mostly funded with state and federal grants. We’re prepared for this discussion.” The City of Reno funds the other court operations.
The court in fiscal year 2019 handled — among four judges — more than 9,000 criminal cases in 2019 and 11,000 traffic cases, and Tuttle said it sees about 20,000 cases a year.
The court handles mostly lower-level misdemeanor and criminal cases: DUIs, traffic cases, assaults and drug possessions. It has seen a reduced caseload this year due to the coronavirus pandemic; 2020 filings were reduced by 8% from the previous year.
The court is often the first stop for those experiencing homelessness to get into treatment.
Tuttle said the department is needed to manage these cases.
“Our workload has held pretty steady. Our goal is to get these people successful,” Tuttle added. “We think it’s a win if we get somebody in the criminal justice system and he doesn’t come back. If they don’t reoffend, that’s a success.”
Mayor Hillary Schieve proposed delaying the judge’s appointment to the court due to the city’s hiring freeze. She also questioned the timing of the appointment being close to the Nov. 3 election.
Deputy City Attorney Mark Dunagan, in response, reiterated the appointment process in the city’s charter was clear: the appointment for the new judge was to happen within 30 days of outgoing Judge Tammy Riggs’ leaving the position Oct. 1.
Councilmember Devon Reese, posting on Facebook, also said this week the city may consider abolishing the court.
“If the caseload of the Court does not justify having a 4th department it should be eliminated,” he said. “We may consider eliminating the department altogether due to workload being down due to the pandemic and our budget; we might appoint on October 28, or we can wait until January…. No decisions have been made.”
City staff said the council has some latitude about the selection process but “Human Resources believed the approach … would be helpful to Council in order to make its selection within the prescribed time frame.”
Tuttle said in the next few months the court could use a temporary judge to manage the court’s caseload. He said a fourth judge will be needed.
“It’s not a position we can hold open for the entire fiscal year,” he said. “We had a plan in place for a possible three month delay in filling this position.”
City Manager Doug Thornley said the court, if abolished by resolution Wednesday, could be re-established by council action.
Dunagan said in 2010 council, via anonymous voting, narrowed the field of candidates to three applications.
CLARIFICATION: The quote by Steve Tuttle was changed to reflect that it is specialty court programs funded by grants, not the courts themselves, as originally reported.
CORRECTION: This article previously reported the City Council had narrowed applicants to three via anonymous voting. That occurred in the 2010 appointment process, not the current application process as originally reported.