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Councilors are pleased with overhaul in St. Helens Municipal Court but still have concerns

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - The St. Helens City Council discussed the status of municipal court during a work session Wednesday, Dec. 20, after a months-long series of changes have taken place. The court system had been operating at a significant financial strain, although it has been seen as a needed community resource, council members and community members have stated.After months working to overhaul St. Helens Municipal Court, the St. Helens City Council still sees room for improvement and wants to see how St. Helens court services stack up to others before deciding on a long-term plan.

During a City Council work session Wednesday, Dec. 20, council members and staff discussed a series of changes within the municipal court, including the hiring of a new city prosecutor earlier this year that has resulted in increased municipal court department revenue.

While revenue generation is on track to match expenses by the end of the fiscal year, according to city Finance Director Matt Brown, several council members noted that the department's financial stability is just one area of concern. Others include the quality and scope of services the court offers.

The City Council initially determined the municipal court required revision as it was drawing significant resources from the city. In the 2016-17 fiscal year, the court was budgeted to spend $403,000, yet it only generated about $250,000 in revenue.

In 2017-18, the court was budgeted for $371,000 in expenses. Currently, the department is expected to generate $369,000 in revenue by June, a significant improvement over the prior year.

In March, Brown briefed the City Council on several potential cost-saving measures for municipal court, including a discussion about the possibility of eliminating it as a city department.

However, those two ideas were met with concern from court employees and members of the public who felt its elimination would undercut the importance of holding people accountable.

Last summer, the city approved the hiring of Clayton Lance as a city prosecutor working on a one-year contract reviewed every 90-days. In his six months on the job, and working in collaboration with Cindy Phillips, the court's presiding judge, Lance has revamped the way the court system functions and, in many ways, has improved the culture within the court, Brown explained in a letter to the City Council.

"There is definitely a culture change in the Court Department and it is for the betterment of the community and

its ongoing needs," Brown stated.

Brown recommended continuation of the municipal court changes instituted earlier this year and a renewal of Phillips and Lances' contracts on a one-year basis.

City Councilors Susan Conn and Keith Locke, however, noted that progress had only been made in the financial arena and other areas of concern, such as service offerings, still needed to be examined to determine if the court is improving.

Locke suggested establishing a committee to determine if the court was truly serving a community need, while Council President Doug Morten suggested a feedback survey. The council also asked Brown to compile a list of services other municipal and circuit courts provide for comparison.

Brown is expected to report back to the council in six months with an update and to determine if the council is satisfied with the municipal court improvements.

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