FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Groundbreaking Municipal Court Consolidation Wins “Outstanding Government Achievement Award” from East-West Gateway Council St. Ann, Vinita Park, Charlack, Northwoods, Wellston and Beverly Hills Recognized for Improving Access to Justice, Adopting Best Practices
CLAYTON, MO – Nov. 17, 2017 – A ground-breaking court collaboration among six municipalities in St. Louis County has received an Outstanding Local Government Achievement Award from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.
The awards recognize the best in local government in the City of St. Louis and Franklin, Jefferson, St. Charles and St. Louis counties in Missouri, and Madison, Monroe and St. Clair counties in Illinois.
In 2016, the cities of St. Ann, Vinita Park, Charlack, Northwoods, Wellston and Beverly Hills collaborated to consolidate their municipal court divisions to enhance court operations and bring them into compliance with new operating standards established by the Missouri Legislature and state Supreme Court. The St. Ann Consolidated Courts now share the same presiding and provisional judges, the same courtroom, and the same court procedures and protocols.
“The Consolidated Municipal Courts is the first initiative of its kind in the region and serves as a model for other cities in the state to follow,” said East-West Gateway Executive Director James Wild. “By putting aside political differences to work together, the elected leaders for each municipality have created a more professional, standardized system that makes court services more fair and efficient at the local level.”
The collaboration has provided alternatives to excessive incarceration, enabled flexible judicial dispositions for defendants who cannot afford to pay fines, and saved each participating municipality thousands of dollars in administrative costs.
Since the consolidation, the number of active number of warrants/traffic tickets is down and the participating cities are meeting the state-mandated levels for municipal revenue from court fees and fines, Wild noted.
Although historically St. Louis County’s municipal courts have operated independently, they are, in fact, divisions of the circuit court. The statewide municipal court system had come under intense criticism and increased scrutiny in recent years, following complaints by residents and lawsuits alleging that some courts routinely denied citizens’ Constitutional rights.
But with new state laws, new Missouri Supreme Court minimum operating standards and new local court rules in place, many municipal divisions are undergoing comprehensive improvements, such as the consolidation in St. Ann. In addition to the St. Ann collaboration, nine courts are now operating out of Normandy. And more collaborations are being contemplated.
“The leadership and tenacity of these municipalities made it possible for them to work through some steep challenges – including cost -- in complying with the Supreme Court operating standards,” said St. Louis County Circuit Court Presiding Judge Douglas R. Beach. “Their efforts have not only improved the public’s experience in our municipal divisions, but also demonstrated the power of collaboration to better serve their residents.”
For more than a year since being elected presiding judge, Judge Beach has taken a hands-on approach to supervising the operations of St. Louis County’s municipal divisions. Two weeks ago, he led an all-day workshop attended by nearly 250 municipal court clerks, court administrators and judges, designed to help St. Louis County’s 77 municipal divisions improve services to the public and comply with mandatory minimum state operating standards promulgated by the Missouri Supreme Court.
St. Ann took the initiative to create its own solution to the challenges of court reform, said City Administrator Matthew Conley. “We had no guidelines, no blueprint, no nothing to follow,” Conley said. “But the Missouri constitution provides that municipal governments can share services, and that is the idea we used. This proves that no matter what size the municipalities are, when local people put their minds and effort to solving an issue, they can do it.”
Vinita Park Mayor James McGee said the court consolidation has benefitted his community in multiple ways. Not only are the courts running more efficiently and effectively for residents of North County, by not having to staff its own court, Vinita Park has been able to redirect funds to improve other city services, such as community policing. McGee estimated the city’s savings at $75,000 to $100,000 a year.
“The state required us to do more with less, and we didn’t have the personnel to keep up with the changes,” McGee said. “We had to work together to get that done. Even though our residents have to travel a little distance to get to court (in St. Ann), the response has been very positive.”
Lillian Eunice, City Administrator for the City of Northwoods, said the court consolidation has saved Northwoods more than $160,000 a year, while improving the treatment of those brought to court. Eunice said the collaboration was greatly facilitated by the efforts of Angie Chatman, the court administrator for St. Ann, who has been the linchpin in the consolidation. In addition, the communities involved gained valuable assistance throughout the process from Judge Beach and the Missouri Supreme Court municipal division monitors, Courtney Whiteside and Professor Karen Tokarz, Washington University School of Law, she said.
“From a financial perspective, we are excited about the opportunity to be more efficient with our municipal funds and resources,” Eunice said, “But this court collaboration also gives us the opportunity to comply fully with state laws and court reforms. That means being able to treat municipal defendants more humanely and justly by having a more fair and consistent system throughout, as it should be.”