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December 27, 2010

Clarksville keeps town court

Decision made quickly by council to retain court; search for judge continues

CLARKSVILLE — The Clarksville Town Council quickly made a decision on whether or not to retain its town court at a special meeting Monday night.

A unanimous vote will keep the court in place, at least for another term.

The discussion to eliminate the town court was prompted by Judge Sam Gwin’s announcement that he would retire at the end of the year. A caucus will be held to decide who will take the bench in 2011 and since the four-year term expires in 2012, the seat would be up for re-election again next year.

Council President Greg Isgrigg said the discussion was brought up because of the timing of Gwin’s decision.

“If we were going to think about it, we had to do it before the end of the year because you can’t do it in an election year,” he said.

Another factor was that the court was operating at a loss.

“Well, the numbers were brought up to me by the clerk-treasurer, so I passed it onto the council,” Isgrigg said.

Clerk-Treasurer Gary Hall provided financial figures at the outset of the meeting that the court was operating at a deficit of $150,470 this year. The numbers presented for 2010 were an improvement on the previous two years, when losses totaled $165,487 and $226,206, respectively.

“The figures are important, but the idea of collecting revenues and being self-sustaining ... to the best of my knowledge you do not have a single department in this town that is totally self-sustaining,” Gwin said. “What the court is here for is to provide services to the community,”

In the past year, Gwin said the court handled 900 misdemeanor and 700 traffic cases and the fact that the revenues Clarksville’s court is bringing in are below the expenditures is not uncommon.

“There are very few courts in the state of Indiana ... that are self-sustaining,” he said. “They’re not supposed to be. That’s not what they’re there for. They’re there to administer justice.”

Gwin added that the loss the court is operating at was overstated.

According to figures Gwin presented at the Monday meeting, Clarksville Town Court expenditures to-date were $333,372. The revenues collected to-date equaled $329,974, he said.

“It costs you less than $5,000 ... to have your Clarksville Town Court,” he said.

Gwin admitted that the losses in previous years had been progressively higher, but one way in which he addressed improving the deficit was to require payment at the same time an individual entered a plea. He said it eliminates pursuing people and provides savings for the court.

An issue that is outside the control of the council was again brought up by Councilman David Fisher. He mentioned a provision that may be implemented by the state which would eliminate city and town courts.

The Indiana Judicial Conference released a report last year calling for drastic changes in the state’s judicial system, including eliminating all municipal courts.

“The state is trying to do that on every level,” said Bill Wilson, president of the Clarksville Community Schools Corp. board, in reference to the state eliminating local offices. “I am a firm, firm believer in local control. The more you move government away from the people, the more people have trouble controlling that government.”

A different plea was made by Clarksville resident Chris Kraft.

“We talked about numbers, but we’re talking about people,” he said. “When you’re talking about doing away with the town court, you are talking about the jobs of these seven people right here,” he said, referring to the court employees in attendance. “If you begin to eliminate these departments, where does it stop?”

If the court was eliminated, the bulk of the caseload would have been passed to the Clark County courts. Sellersburg and Charlestown voted this year to eliminate their municipal courts, although Isgrigg said Charlestown have discussed reimplementing its court.

Because of the Monday vote, the meeting previously scheduled for tonight has been canceled.

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