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Three-way battle erupts over courthouse security

Peter Vieth//June 3, 2015

Three-way battle erupts over courthouse security

Peter Vieth//June 3, 2015//

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SPortsmouth officials are trying to deflect blame as a conflict between an elected sheriff and a budget-cutting city council threatens to leave judges in an insecure courthouse.

Recurring tension between leaders at city hall and the independent sheriff led to a city budget that would cut $1 million from the sheriff’s office. In response, the sheriff sent layoff notices to 17 full-time employees and said the cuts will fall squarely on courthouse operations.

Judges reacted with dismay, and Chief Circuit Judge Johnny E. Morrison claimed the sheriff was irresponsibly broadcasting news about the expected security lapse.

The dispute is fed by old grievances and repeats a scenario that made headlines six years ago,  featuring many of the same players.

The situation is now a standoff, said city Sheriff Bill Watson on June 2.

Faced with a budget crisis, a four-member majority of the city council approved a budget this spring that sliced $1 million in supplemental money for the sheriff’s office.

Watson promptly announced layoffs and sought to cast the blame on Mayor Kenny Wright.

Watson, the sheriff, and Morrison, the chief judge, attended a city council work session, only to be told that the budget cut will stand, Watson said.

Watson now finds himself between the city council and the judges, determined to lay the effects of the budget reduction back at city hall.

“I will not let the mayor run the sheriff’s office,” Watson said.

For local observers, the dispute sounds like a rerun of 2009. A city hall budget cut that year had Watson planning layoffs of 11 employees, with the threat of unmanned security stations at the courts.

“They finally put the money back in there,” Watson said about the 2009 showdown.

The recurring budget strife reflects the diverse entities that have to cooperate to make local government work.

Under Virginia’s constitution, sheriffs are independent, elected constitutional officers, but dependent on funding from the state. The state compensation board supports a basic set of services, with extras – including much of the courthouse operation – paid for with supplemental money from the local government.

Watson said he refuses to take deputies from his basic areas of responsibility – civil service and jail operations – to fill the gap at the courthouse. And he bristled at Wright’s suggestion that he replace full-time employees with contract screeners at the security stations.

“I don’t know what their background is. I don’t know what their training is,” Watson said.

Wright resents the sheriff’s resistance to closing the city jail, which sits on riverfront property that could produce revenue for the city, according to Watson.

Another source of irritation is the courthouse itself. The 207,000-square-foot building cost $78 million to build and opened in 2012. It brought together all the city courts as well as offices for prosecutors, the sheriff and court services staff.

The building is “huge,” said the sheriff and his staff.

“You can barely see from one end of a corridor to another,” said sheriff’s Captain Lee Cherry.

The sheriff says judges forced the city to build a “Taj Mahal” facility that requires 44 security stations. It has two entrances. Closing one entrance to save security costs is out of the question, Watson said.

“The judges are not going to stand for it,” he said.

Mary T. Morgan, president of the Norfolk & Portsmouth Bar Association, said local lawyers want courthouse security to be “as robust as it can be.”

She said security is not just for judges and court staffers, but the litigants, witnesses and other members of the public who have to go to court for various reasons.

“The reputation of the city is at stake,” Morgan said.

“I don’t know if there is a simple solution, but it sounds like there needs to be a compromise at some point,” Morgan said.

Calls for comment to Wright, the mayor, and Morrison, the chief judge, were not returned as of press time.

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