This Place is More Than a Courthouse

COMMENT

June 19, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

At a party last year, I was talking with someone about politics in Harford County and my job with the newspaper. "So I guess you spend a lot of time at the courthouse," she said. No, I quickly demurred, "I don't have much to do with court trials."

It took us a few awkward attempts before we resolved our mutual misunderstanding, and set the record straight. But that conversation pointed out what many people mean when they say "the county courthouse."

They mean county government in its entirety, the embodiment of the county seat, the center of governmental activity. They aren't just talking about the county courtrooms, the court clerk's office and the judges' chambers.

The term of reference long survives the dispersion of county offices into other quarters, permanent or rented. County Office Buildings are well established as part of the governmental landscape. Separate court buildings are also a fixture in a number of counties. Still, "the courthouse" symbolizes government and taxpayer services as much as it does the judicial system.

So when William O. Carr, administrative judge of Harford County's Circuit Court, insists that the judiciary needs all the space in the courthouse on Main Street, including the extensive additions to the historic building, he doesn't advance his case much with the Geopolitik argument: "The sign on the door says courthouse. It does not say County Council house."

In fact, the justice seems to go out of his way to express displeasure that the council, the elected representatives of the public, deigns to darken the corridors he deems reserved only for appointed jurists.

Even before the General Assembly approved an additional Circuit Court judge for Harford this year, Judge Carr had been vocal in urging that the County Council find other lodgings, pronto.

That may have been the reason for the ceremonial snub by

council President Jeffrey Wilson this month, when he chose not to sign a county proclamation honoring Judge Carr for his community work and for an unsung hero award from the Harford Council of Community Services. Mr. Wilson declined to explain his refusal to sign the proclamation (which went to Judge Carr with signatures of the county executive and rest of the council.)

The council president noted that it was the same as voting against the proclamation, a decision he's made about a half-dozen times during his five years in office. It's one of the personal gestures available to the official who is not worried about the impact on his re-election campaign. Mr. Wilson isn't running this year.

Next February, Harford's Circuit Court is to get a fifth judge, who will need another courtroom and chambers. Another clerk will be needed to handle the extra work. That will surely squeeze the basement space allotted to the seven County Council members and their employees, who now number close to 18. A courtroom is now used for the council meetings.

It's not that the council is set against moving. It simply wants to move to suitable quarters that won't require moving and uprooting every year.

But the time frame is considerably compressed. The state won't solicit nominations for the judgeship (submitted to the governor for final appointment) until Harford provides the space. So the decision has to be made soon.

One proposal is to move the council to the Office Street building occupied by the Supervisor of Elections. Another is to buy an existing building, such as 212 South Bond St., which Mr. Wilson has suggested.

At the same time, there's general agreement that the courts and court-related functions should stay together in the courthouse (even with its barred front door and inhospitable fountain in the middle of the front walk.) The administration's idea of moving the Register of Wills and the law library out of the courthouse fails that test.

It should be clear by now that a central office building is needed to house the County Council and other county agencies that are growing along with the county population. The administrative building on Main Street doesn't have room, either.

It's a difficult political decision, backing the construction of a costly new edifice that further expands the grasp of government. Look at how long the county school board and administration have pressed for building a new central facility, without even the hint of success.

But the expanded judiciary, and the realization that Harford probably will need a sixth judge before the end of this decade, should prod the county into action.

The council's got to find a new home. There's concern about security in the transfer of prisoners in the courthouse. Only three courtrooms are available for a criminal caseload that has doubled in 10 years. Other county offices are being pushed into leased space around town.

But the Harford courthouse will still represent more than the courts, even as the other occupants are forced to relocate.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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