County likely won't fund colleague for its court commissioners

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

County budget

Public comment will be heard Wednesday at 1 p.m. at 1300 Franklin St., Sixth Floor, Vancouver.

Clark County Superior Court is not expected to receive funding to hire a third court commissioner until at least April.

Clark County’s proposed 2013-14 budget cuts the position, which costs $340,000 over the course of the two-year budget. The position was created in 2006, but has gone unfilled since 2008 in an effort to save the county money during austere budgeting.

But now those on the bench say a third commissioner is needed more than ever, and the funding has been pulled from them without consultation.

“No good deed goes unpunished,” said Judge Barbara Johnson during Monday’s budget hearing. “What we are asking is for the status quo … and to meet the needs established back in 2006.”

Clark County’s court commissioners deal with about 90 percent of family law cases, such as custody hearings and divorce proceedings. Court commissioners also deal with all dependency cases in the county, which involve cases of child neglect.

The dependency cases are of particular importance to the court; each case represents one child. A typical week’s dependency docket has about 120 cases.

Court Commissioner Carin Schienberg said the high numbers mean time becomes a factor, and that’s not good for the system.

“That is 120 kids I have to make decisions for,” Schienberg said. “We’ve been as high as 178 before. Does that mean it’s just a rubber stamp? You want to do a really good job. You want to do a really good job for each child and each family. And you really can’t do a really good job in three minutes.”

Three minutes is what the court estimates is the current average spent on each dependency case. Industry standards recommend at least 15 minutes.

The two commissioners, Schienberg and Dayann Lieb­man, can’t simply create more time in their schedules to fix the problem. Their weeks are filled with other dockets such as juvenile court, protection order hearings, and time for pro se litigants, who represent themselves and take extra time during hearings. On top of that, each docket requires preparation.

“It would be good to have more time,” Schienberg said. “It would give us the ability to more properly address the needs of our clients. Sometimes we are dealing with people in the community who feel marginalized. My goal is to make them not feel like that.”

The judges petitioned county commissioners last month, and again this week, to add the position back to the budget.

Judge James Rulli made a final appeal to county commissioners Monday afternoon. “(This) needs to change. We need another commissioner to help out,” he said. “(Defendants) need to feel judges are prepared, they were heard and that justice was served.”

In return, the county asked for more data on the caseload. County Administrator Bill Barron said the position likely won’t be discussed again until the supplemental budget hearing in April.

Hearings on the county’s $848 million budget continue through Thursday. The budget sees a slight raise in expected revenues over the 2011-12 budget, and plans on commissioners declining a 1 percent property tax raise in the coming year.

The first opportunity for public comment passed by Tuesday night without any input. A second public comment period is scheduled for today at 1 p.m. at 1300 Franklin St., sixth floor, Vancouver.


Erik Hidle: 360-735-4542; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov; erik.hidle@columbian.com.