Court agencies must work in cramped conditions Historic courthouse runs out of room

October 03, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Space is so tight at Howard County's Circuit Courthouse that mail gets sorted in the room where people get married, next to a white trellis laced with plastic ivy. If letters and lovers arrive at the same time, the county clerk has to conduct the marriage in her office.

Lawyers who want to talk to their jailed clients before court must line up -- sometimes behind four others -- to use the one interview room in the sheriff's office. And when a new staff person comes on board, the court administrator finds himself eyeing any available alcove for office space -- even putting an office where soda machines used to stand.

Court and county officials say the historic courthouse -- built in 1843 -- can't hold any more history. As the county continues to grow, office space must be expanded, officials say, but they don't know where or how it can grow.

The courthouse "is beautiful on the outside, but it's not functional on the inside," said Margaret D. Rappaport, clerk of the Circuit Court. "The county has grown, but we haven't."

Civil cases filed in the clerk's office increased by 18 percent from 1994 to 1996, to 3,498 cases. Criminal cases also have shot up -- from 806 last year to 1,047 in 1997.

Raquel Sanudo, the county's chief administrative officer, said officials are contemplating relocating some agencies from the courthouse. One possibility is moving some into the central government complex in Ellicott City and then moving the county workers into the AlliedSignal building -- if the county's $7.5 million purchase of that building goes through.

"I think [the courthouse] has reached its maximum capacity," Sanudo said. "Some of the functions need to be there, and others do not."

Sanudo said officials have considered buying property in Ellicott City, and some agencies rent office space there. Adding on to the courthouse is unlikely because it would be expensive, she said.

But, she said, no action is likely to take place for at least a year.

Court officials and agency heads say the 1986 expansion of the courthouse -- which nearly doubled its capacity -- did not take into consideration the future growth of the county.

"At the time, they just didn't plan well," said Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo. "We're going into the next century, and we're dealing with a building that was built in the 1800s."

Chiuchiolo's 50-member staff is spread among the bottom floor of the courthouse, where even a mail room has been turned into an office, the county's old jail, where hangings used to take place, and rented offices in Ellicott City.

Chiuchiolo said the old jail, adjacent to the courthouse and where deputies spend much of their time, is particularly troubling. Squirrels and snakes live in the upper reaches of the Gothic building. Lack of ventilation means keeping the front door open to let air circulate.

"I don't think anyone should have to work in a place like this," Chiuchiolo said recently, standing in a damp office used by two deputies who transport criminals. The office had been quarters for the warden when the building was a jail.

Rappaport said her office is so crowded that she fears it does not meet fire codes.

Also, she said, 1,000 people a day come through the courthouse, and there is no place for women who are victims of domestic violence -- sometimes weeping and bruised -- to wait while they get a protective order, she said.

The idea of relocating certain agencies -- such as the Register of Wills -- could prove difficult. Most agencies insist they be in the building or a short distance away.

"The sheriff's department has got to be right close," Chiuchiolo said. "If there's an incident in the courthouse," deputies have to be there.

Rappaport echoed his thoughts: "We have got to stay with the judges."

Register of Wills Kay K. Hartleb said she would rather stay in close quarters than leave the courthouse.

"Traditionally, the Register of Wills has always been located in the courthouse," Hartleb said. "We're part of the judicial system."

Pub Date: 10/03/97

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