Town Boards Need To Oversee Their Courts More Closely

One of the arguments for town and village courts is that they are better able to administer justice efficiently and effectively than a larger, consolidated court system.

Is that really the case in Chautauqua County?

The latest chink in the armor of our current court system comes from the town of Stockton, which recently had a deluge of old traffic tickets come to light. Dozens of people had to report to court on incidents that happened as long as 35 years ago or face suspension of their driver’s licenses. Duane Anderson, a former Lakewood Village Board member who was one of those sent a long-overdue notice to appear in court, said a county assistant district attorney was recommending tickets be dismissed while Mark Cunningham, Stockton town justice, agreed to the recommendation. The court did the right thing in the end by dismissing charges.

It’s comical on one hand and a scathing indictment of the way our court system works on the other.

We have seen, over the past couple of years, issue after issue crop up in town and village courts. Roughly four years ago Ellicott had $30,000 in missing money from its justice court over a four-year period. A Harmony judge didn’t notify the state Motor Vehicles Department on the status of more than 2,610 vehicle and traffic cases in the way state officials want the information submitted — which meant more than two thousand cases were not logged with the state. The former clerk of the Ellery Town Court was convicted about three years ago with stealing more than $60,000 from the court. Now, we have people being called to court for traffic tickets issued during the Clinton administration because a clerk didn’t handle records correctly.

Enough is enough.

Town boards must take more seriously their role in overseeing courts properly. Some of these issues could be caught if boards charged with oversight are taught the proper things to be aware of while looking at court reports. Things auditors recommended in the aftermath of issues need to be part of a board member’s training so they know what to look for when reconciling various court-related reports they are given each month.

If centralized arraignment works well in the long term, perhaps this is a good time to at least investigate consolidating court clerks to improve record keeping or take another look at consolidating justice courts throughout the county. Not all of our region’s courts have had issues, but the trend is disconcerting enough that we should be looking for solutions.