DA’s court schedule change roils town officials

CHATHAM–The current and former town justices and two Town Court clerks are up in arms about changes to Town Court being dictated by Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka. At the August 16 Town Board meeting they said Mr. Czajka is planning to cut back weekly court sessions to twice a month starting in September.

“It’s not proper for us to tell the DA how to use his resources,” said Town Judge James Borgia-Forster.  “But I think going to two nights a month would be detrimental.”

Mr. Borgia-Forster said the courtroom in the Tracy Memorial building is already full with the 35 to 40 cases the court handles on a weekly basis.

“If we were to add another 35 cases to the docket, that could add another 50 people in court, including witnesses, rides and attorneys,” he said. “ The additional people could make it difficult to maintain order.”

Mr. Borgia-Forster also said that in the summer, the heat could be dangerous in a potentially overcrowded court.

“It gets very hot because the air conditioning cannot be left on because it makes too much noise,” he said.

Mr. Borgia-Forster said no matter how many sessions the court holds, it will still handle the same number of cases.

“Reducing the number of court sessions does not cut the number of hours in session,” he said.

Mr. Borgia-Forster, who took office in January, was backed up in his statements by the presence of former Town Justice Doris Appel, who retired last December, after serving in the post for 28 years.

Town Court clerks Sandra LeClair and Joan Goold also spoke about the challenges of consolidating the court sessions into two nights a month.

If the court had double the workload, “we would be there until 10:30 or 11 at night,” said Ms. LeClair. “I just can’t see us doing 70 cases a night.”

The Columbia Paper spoke by telephone with Mr. Czajka about the issues presented by Mr. Borgia-Forster, but he declined to comment.

In January, shortly after Mr. Czajka returned to office as DA, his office took over all prosecutions of traffic tickets, which were formerly plea-bargained by local police departments or the county sheriff’s office. Since that change took place, it’s been necessary for the DA or one of his assistant district attorneys to be present at local court sessions dealing with traffic tickets, as well as criminal cases.

In Chatham, criminal cases have traditionally been heard twice a month, with traffic cases being heard weekly.

Town Supervisor Jesse DeGroodt said the Town Board has no jurisdiction over the Town  Courts, but the board would consider the matter at its next meeting.

In other business at the monthly board meeting:

*Town Highway Superintendent Joe Rickert said the East Chatham Bridge failed a recent review by the state Department of Transportation. The bridge weight limit has been reduced from 20 tons to four tons until repairs can be made. Mr. Rickert said the bridge could easily be fixed, but the CSX railroad company, which owns the bridge, has not returned the town’s calls.

“I’ve made two office calls and two cell phone calls,” said Mr. DeGroodt. “And not a peep.”

Mr. DeGroodt asked Town Attorney Tal Rappleyea to draft a letter to CSX.

Mr. Rickert also said Seven Bridges Road is closed for repairs and asked the board to set a five-ton weight limit for those bridges. The board later passed that resolution unanimously.

*The board scheduled a public hearing for the revised law to create a Conservation Advisory Council. It will take place on September 20 at 7pm, prior to the board’s regular monthly meeting

*The board heard a presentation from Peter Paden, executive director of the Columbia Land Conservancy. Mr. Paden explained the varied work of the nonprofit organization, which serves the community more broadly than a traditional land trust.

“We aspire to have an impact on this entire county, making sure the [scenic value and good farmland] will be around a long time,” said Mr. Paden.

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