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City, municipal court at odds over powers
by Joshua H. Silavent
Mar 18, 2011 | 1629 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune/John Byrne - Sparks Municipal Court Judge Jim Spoo listens to proceedings during a court session Thursday afternoon at the municipal court building in Sparks.
Tribune/John Byrne - Sparks Municipal Court Judge Jim Spoo listens to proceedings during a court session Thursday afternoon at the municipal court building in Sparks.
SPARKS — A seemingly innocuous request to amend the City Charter and give the Sparks Municipal Court authority over its own personnel decisions turned contentious Wednesday when members of the City Council expressed opposition to some of the proposed changes.

The matter was pulled from the Charter Committee’s agenda when it was determined that both sides had not reached a full compromise. The dispute now appears to be headed to district court, and possibly the state Supreme Court, for resolution.

Private legal counsel for city government said the bulk of the amendments, which affirmed the municipal court’s power to hire, fire, discipline and set the salaries of its employees, had been agreed upon. Because of a conflict of interest, the City Attorney’s office has removed itself from the quarrel.

But objections arose earlier this week with the addition of new provisions and exemptions that also would give the municipal court power to appoint its own special counsel and allow it to assume control of its budget, stripping some measure of oversight from city government.

“The items we do agree on have to do with personnel matters” and nothing more, said Alice Campos Mercado, a private attorney representing the city.

Councilman Ron Smith described the last-minute additions as an “earmark.”

Moreover, Smith said he balked at a stipulation from lawyers for the municipal court that required the city government to agree with all proposed changes or else face a challenge over the constitutionality of the City Charter in state court.

“We’re not going to bend under their pressure,” he said.

In a time of record budget deficits and economic uncertainty, the municipal court’s desire to usurp authority from the City Council “over the use, distribution, allocation and implementation of any budgeted amounts,” as the amendment reads, did not sit well with council members.

“That’s what this is all about,” Councilman Ed Lawson said, “keeping the checks and balances …”

Attorneys from Holland & Hart, a firm that has previously been involved with suits levied at city government, are currently representing the municipal court. In letters to the Charter Committee, they said that separation of powers statutes in the federal and Nevada constitutions grant the municipal court the authority to manage its own affairs, including those stipulated in the disputed amendments.

Councilman Ron Schmitt said he is unaware of the existence of any such specific statutes.

Another point of debate arose in regards to efforts by the municipal court to inhibit its employees from unionizing.

In a letter dated March 11 and addressed to the Charter Committee, attorneys for the municipal court said they expected all unions to voluntarily withdraw their interest in representing court employees.

But Councilman Mike Carrigan said he was told some court marshals had expressed their intention to seek representation from the Sparks Police Protective Association.

No legal counsel for the municipal court was present to respond at Wednesday’s Charter Committee meeting.

Litigation now coming down the pipe could cost Sparks’ taxpayers upward of $175,000, Carrigan said.

What seemed like an open-and-shut deal just one week ago now looks certain to pit city government versus its own municipal court in a drawn-out legal fight.

“It surprises me the way this has turned out,” said Rand Tanner, chair of the Charter Committee.
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