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Rural Towns Should Be Watching Court Mergers

One can quibble with the way the Sherman Town Board handled the elimination of one of its town justice positions.

Board members voted Sept. 5 to eliminate one of the two positions. James Van Volkenburg, who has served as one of the town’s justices for the past 32 years, circulated a petition to put the reduction the subject of a public referendum vote that will be held Nov. 19.

Van Volkenburg is unhappy that the vote to eliminate his position came after he had run for re-election and that by eliminating the position and then reinstating it, the board can cut his salary by 55% to $3,000 a year. Town officials said the decision had to be made at the end of a judge’s term according to state law. Van Volkenburg also said that while there has been a decrease in the number of cases that drive revenue to the town, he finds himself involved in landlord/tenant disputes, small claims, Child Protective Services cases and preliminary hearings.

Van Volkenburg makes good points, but one has to wonder if Sherman has a high enough case volume to justify having two justices. Mark Persons, town supervisor, said the number of court cases in Sherman have decreased 53.6% from 1,206 in 2014 to 559 in 2018, with 417 cases through late October this year. The reduction is due largely to the lack of construction on Interstate 86 and the relocation of the state trooper office. We note, too, that the discussion in Sherman comes at the same time that Mina and French Creek, which border Sherman, are in the midst of a legal process to possibly combine town courts.

One can make the argument that not only should Sherman not have two justices, but maybe the town should consider entering into an agreement with French Creek, Mina or another neighboring town, particularly if caseloads in other towns are decreasing at the same rate Sherman’s have decreased.

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