Oconee County may have only a little more than a year before it needs to find space in the Courthouse for a Superior Court judge, the judge’s secretary and a law clerk.
That was the message Chief Superior Court Judge David Sweat delivered to the Oconee County Board of Commissioners last night in the second of four scheduled work sessions the Board is holding to deal with pressing issues before the county.
He would like a new fourth judge for the Western Judicial Circuit of the 10th Judicial Administrative District to be in place by Jan. 1 of 2016.
House Bill 367, introduced in the Georgia House of Representatives on Tuesday, calls for the governor to appoint a judge for the Western Judicial Circuit for a term beginning on July 1 of next year, but Judge Sweat said the bill could be changed before it is passed to move the appointment date forward six months.
Oconee representatives Regina Quick and Chuck Williams joined with Spencer Frye of Athens-Clarke County in introducing the legislation to authorize appointment of the fourth judge on Tuesday. The bill was given its first reading yesterday.
The Western Judicial Circuit is made up of Oconee and Clarke counties, but the bill was co-sponsored by Barry Fleming (Harlem), Alex Atwood (St. Simons Island), and Mike Jacobs (Brookhaven).
The bill has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.
Judge Sweat told the BOC last night that the funding is in the budget for the judgeship and that no other superior court judges are being sought in this session of the legislature.
Oconee County Judge
The bill states that the counties are responsible for furnishing the “judges of the circuit with suitable courtrooms and facilities, office space, telephones, furniture, office equipment, supplies, and such personnel as may be considered necessary by the court to the proper function of the court.”
The three existing judges, Judge Sweat, Judge Patrick Haggard and Judge Lawton E. Stephens, have their primary offices in Clarke County, though they hold court in the Oconee County Courthouse as well.
Judge Sweat has said that the fourth judge will have to be provided offices in Oconee County.
In addition to space needs, the county also has to address security needs of the court, Judge Sweat explains in the video clip from last night that is below.
Parade Of Presenters
Judge Sweat was joined by Tracey J. BeMent, district court administrator, in the presentation before the commissioners last night.
The working session was to focus on space needs of the county, and Judge Sweat was preceded by Probate Court Judge David Anglin, Clerk of Superior, Magistrate and Juvenile Courts Angela Elder-Johnson, and District Attorney Ken Mauldin.
All said they will need additional space in the future.
Mauldin said the space at present “is not adequate to our needs.”
The judicial presenters last night currently use space in the Courthouse, but two others came before the BOC whose offices are in what is now called the Government Offices across the street from the Courthouse.
The two buildings formerly were called the Courthouse Annex and are often referred to as the Dolvin Buildings.
Apryl Singer from Environmental Health Services and Coroner Ed Carson both said they are cramped for space at present and expect to need more space in the future.
On Dec. 9 of last year, the BOC held an earlier session on space needs, and those who presented last night had been left out of that earlier gathering. Last night was their opportunity to sat what they need now and in the future.
The future use of the existing Courthouse has been at the core of discussions about space needs in the county since at least 2009.
Judge Sweat made it clear again last night that he does not believe the existing Courthouse will suit the judicial needs of the county in the future.
Judge Sweat said that of the 45,000 square feet of space in the existing Courthouse, 20,000 square feet are currently being used for judicial purposes, with the remainder being used for county administrative services.
In the next five to seven years, according to Judge Sweat, county judicial services will need an additional 15,000 to 25,000 square feet of space, or nearly all of the space of the current Courthouse.
In 20 years, the judge projects, the judicial functions will need between 62,000 and 75,000 square feet of space.
The BOC will hold a third work session, beginning at 5 p.m. on Monday. The session is to deal with road projects in the county.
A final work session is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Thursday. That is a wrap-up session.
The work sessions are being held in the Grand Jury Room of the Courthouse, which allows the presenters and commissioners to set around a table.
The presenters last night had their backs to the small number of people in the audience.
Both Sarah Bell and I video recorded the session. The county did not make a recording.
The video below of the full session was recorded by Bell, who had the best angle for capturing the comments of Judge Sweat and the others who spoke to the Board.
NOTE: I made a mistake in the original version and said the 10th Judicial Administrative District was made up of Clarke and Oconee counties. I meant to say that the Western Circuit was made up of these two counties. I thank T.J. BeMent for correcting the error. I also have changed the other language referring to the Western Circuit, which is part of the 10th District, in the story above to be more precise, reflecting the language suggested by Mr. BeMent. I apologize for the error.