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Thurston courthouse power outage raises concerns about ‘antiquated’ buildings

A new Thurston County Courthouse can’t come soon enough for District and Superior Court officials after a recent power outage left them in the dark and scrambling for a temporary solution.
A new Thurston County Courthouse can’t come soon enough for District and Superior Court officials after a recent power outage left them in the dark and scrambling for a temporary solution. Steve Bloom

A new Thurston County Courthouse can’t come soon enough for District and Superior Court officials, and likely other courthouse staff, after a recent power outage left them in the dark and scrambling for temporary solutions.

Those solutions included running out to Lowe’s to buy extension cords, ordering about $80 in pizza, relocating to the largest courtroom and trying to take advantage of as much natural light as possible. In Superior Court, they made the difficult decision to declare a mistrial, which means that trial starts all over again, a costly endeavor.

The power went out Oct. 3 after the failure of one of three power lines that serve the three-building campus on Lakeridge Drive. The county commission has since passed an emergency resolution so Central Services can skip a time-consuming bidding process and immediately begin evaluating the problem and finding a solution.

But District Court Judge Brett Buckley worries that the buildings are going to lose power again and he wants the community to be aware about the problem and prepared. District court officials already are working on a contingency plan.

“This is what happens when you have an antiquated building,” he said. The courthouse buildings are about 40 years old.

District Court makes do

The power went out intermittently the morning of Oct. 3. After the source of the problem was identified, power needed to be completely shut down so that the damaged power line could be spliced and repaired.

Building 3 on the courthouse campus, which is home to District Court, has an emergency generator to power some lights, some outlets and the old jail.

Judge Buckley had his hands full. He faced a busy arraignment and in-custody calendar with one working outlet and more room and natural light in Courtroom No. 1, the largest in District Court.

District Court doesn’t use court reporters, just electronic recording devices, so court staff needed to figure out a way to power them. Someone from Central Services rushed out to Lowe’s and bought several extension cords, which were then strung from the one working outlet into the courtroom.

Buckley announced the delay to his crowded courtroom. The announcement was met with an audible groan, he said.

“There were a lot of disgruntled people,” Buckley said.

District Court judges decided to dig into their own pockets and order six pizzas for those waiting for their cases to be heard. That improved the mood.

But there were other problems: In-custody defendants typically appear in court via video, but because the power was out, they needed to be transported to the courtroom in person from area jails by law enforcement.

Buckley found himself in the unusual position of trying to read judgment and sentencing forms with his back to the courtroom, paper held up to the natural light.

“The court system can’t handle this too many times,” he told The Olympian.

The experience has led District Court administrator Jennifer Creighton to begin work on a contingency plan, which includes getting feedback from the attorneys they most often see in court.

Superior Court shuts down

In Superior Court, the power was out and Judge Carol Murphy was faced with what to do on the second day of a new trial. She weighed the options: They could move to the Olympia municipal court, or move to a family and juvenile court with no jurors’ box.

But there was one more problem: One juror had mobility issues and the elevator wasn’t working.

A mistrial was declared, she said. “It was very frustrating,” Murphy said.

Even more frustrating was watching the power come back on that afternoon after being told that power restoration was an unknown, she said.

For Murphy, an advocate for a new courthouse, the power outage was just the latest example of how the Superior Court building falls short. Among other concerns: a narrow hallway, and potential safety issues, when it is shared by judges, in-custody defendants and jurors.

She recently witnessed a close call after Judge John Skinder emerged from his courtroom and into that hallway where he nearly bumped into a defendant.

New courthouse in the works

There is momentum for creating a new courthouse and civic center. An architectural consultant has been hired to evaluate three sites: The existing location, the former Olympia City Hall site on Plum Street, and undeveloped land near HarrIson Road Northwest and Kaiser Road Southwest.

The county has announced a series of public meetings about the courthouse and civic center proposal. The county expects to seek money for the projects via a measure on the August 2019 ballot.

The public meeting dates and times:

Oct. 15: 10:30 a.m. to noon, Yelm Community Center, 301 Second St. SE, Yelm

Oct. 15: 6 to 7:30 p.m., Tenino High School, 500 W Second Ave., Tenino

Oct. 16: Five sessions at The Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St. NW, at 9:-10:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. to noon, 1:30–3 p.m., 3-4:30 p.m., 6–7:30 p.m.

Nov. 6: Five sessions at the Lacey Community Center, 6729 Pacific Ave. SE, at 9:-10:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. to noon, 1:30–3 p.m., 3-4:30 p.m., 6–7:30 p.m.

Nov. 7: 10:30 a.m. to noon, Rainier City Hall, 102 Rochester St. W.

Nov. 7: 6-7:30 p.m. Rochester High School Commons, 19800 Carper Road SW, Rochester.

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