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July 30, 2013 8:30 am

EDITORIAL: Weigh the evidence — and keep Powell Circuit Court open

Written by Tom Lawrence

Finding a way to reduce government costs always sounds good, and is an easy concept to endorse.

But all proposals are not equal, and not every idea makes sense. Closing the Powell Circuit Court is a glaring example of that.

Wyoming State Court officials have been considering shuttering the Powell, Lovell and Dubois courts, and the matter has been brought before the the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee. After considering the pros and cons, it seems apparent to us that keeping the Powell court open is the proper decision.

For one thing, Powell, with 6,308 residents, would be the largest Wyoming city without its own court. Only one other city with a population over 2,600 does not have a circuit court.

We’re not advocating that merely because we are the Powell newspaper. We understand the need for tough calls by government to provide efficient and proper services to the people. But the overwhelming evidence indicates that the Powell court, which mostly deals with misdemeanor criminal cases, should remain in operation.

In 2012, state court administrators said those three courts would close by July 1, 2013, to meet required budget reductions. But the Legislature decided this last session to provide enough funding for them until April 1, 2014. We will not dwell on that date, but it is somewhat noteworthy.

The savings by closing the Powell court are estimated at  $7,225 a year. The annual combined budget for the Powell and Cody circuit courts is $556,600.

One reason that the savings would be so relatively small is that Park County Circuit Court officials have worked to make the courts run smoothly. A judge is in Powell six times a month and the Powell court office is only open three days a week (Monday, Tuesday and Friday). All civil cases are filed in Cody.

This was news to state officials. Wyoming court officials have acknowledged they weren’t aware of those steps until meeting with Park County officials in Cody in May.

“This is a process, frankly, we probably should have done before we made the recommendation (to close Powell) in the first place,” said Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kite, the head of the state’s courts.

Yes, we encourage the chief justice to gather all such information. We also applaud the local court officials for their efforts.

While the state of Wyoming may see a minor reduction in cost, the city of Powell would almost assuredly face an increase with travel time and expenses. In addition, the people who will come before the court will see an almost 50-mile round trip added to their court experience. For some people, especially those who may have to appear more than once, that could become a very real issue.

There are other factors. The Park County Courthouse is already full, and would have to find more space for the hearings that are now held in Powell. And the city of Cody would have to stop using the Circuit Courtroom for municipal court on Tuesdays, when Judge Bruce Waters is now in Powell, or rearrange its schedule.

Park County Commissioner Bucky Hall has lobbied hard to keep the Powell court open. Hall said in addition to the statistics that show the need for it, there’s something else to consider.

There is a portion of the Powell population that “already feels they’re ignored by the state — and even by the county government — and I said this (closure) is just going to be another kick in the teeth at them from the big brother,” Hall said.

That is another point for the judicial and legislative leaders to consider when they weigh the evidence on this matter. Powell is not a suburb of Cody. This is a bustling, very active community. Powell needs to provide all public services, including courts, to its people.

We hope the final ruling is well-considered and informed, and makes sense for the state and for the people of our community.

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