News

Sheriff's plan to shutter Palo Alto Courthouse gets pushback

Smith cites staffing shortages as reason for proposal to close courthouses in Palo Alto and Morgan Hill

Superior Court Palo Alto Courthouse photographed March 23, 2020. Photo by Sammy Dallal

Citing staffing shortages, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith plans to shut down the Palo Alto and Morgan Hill courthouses later this month.

The proposal, which Smith unveiled in a May 27 memo, calls for shutting down the two courthouses on June 13. The closure is necessary, she wrote, because of her office's "inability to adequately staff court security."

"Having to staff eight court facilities, with the corresponding metal detector functions, is not the most effective use of limited resources," Smith wrote.

Smith, whose is concluding her term in January after numerous high-profile scandals and an accusation of corrupt misconduct by the Santa Clara County Grand Jury, stated in the memo that the court's security division "finds itself in the very unfortunate position of not being able to safely and effectively staff all of the open court facilities simultaneously."

"Regrettably, the Sheriff's Office will no longer be able to staff the Palo Alto and South County Court facilities effective June 13, 2022," the memo states. "We will consolidate all resources from Palo Alto and South County to the remaining facilities to be able to provide safe and effective security services.

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"We do not take this matter lightly and will continue to explore other models to provide the service that the Courts expect and should receive."

The announcement, which was made just before Memorial Day weekend, came as a shock to Santa Clara County Superior Court officials. Presiding Judge Theodore Zayner responded with a memo Wednesday that pushed back against Smith's plan to shut down the courthouses, which had been closed for much of the pandemic. The Palo Alto Courthouse at 270 Grant Ave. reopened on May 2. Prior to that date, all court business involving north county residents was conducted at the Hall of Justice in San Jose.

"It is disappointing and surprising to hear on such short notice of your apparent determination to discontinue deputy staffing for the Palo Alto and Morgan Hill courthouses, when the court has not increased the number of operating courtrooms while we attempt to serve the North County and South County communities," Zayner wrote in a June 1 memo.

"We have no current intent to close any courthouses or courtrooms, and we look forward to working with your office, the office of the County Executive, and our justice partners to craft a solution that maintains access to justice throughout the County and across all our court facilities."

Smith stated in the memo that since October 2021 her office has been requiring all staff to work overtime to provided the staffing that is required to meet all of its mandated functions. This burden, she wrote, "has fallen on other understaffed divisions to achieve a minimum of 25-30 deputies per day for Court Security alone."

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"This ongoing overtime mandate, in addition to other factors, has been very difficult on our staff," Smith wrote.

She noted that it takes about 18 months to recruit, hire and a train a person for the deputy sheriff position and pointed to numerous other factors for the staffing shortage, including decisions by Santa Clara County officials to institute a hiring freeze and then eliminate vacant positions in her office.

"The effects of this hiring freeze coupled with early retirements have led us to this critical juncture," she wrote.

She also noted that her office is losing deputies to other agencies that either offer higher salaries or are located in areas with a lower cost of living. This year, she wrote, the Sheriff's Office has lost seven deputies to other agencies and eight others are in the hiring process with other agencies.

"Employees are leaving at an alarming rate which has had a significant impact on staffing throughout the agency," she wrote. "Our ability to provide even minimum levels of service, has become a safety issue for our staff and those we serve."

According to the Sheriff's Office, the low staffing levels are requiring 145 overtime shifts in courts every week. Closing the two courthouses would "substantially increase the number of courtrooms that can be utilized by integrating staff to key locations," the office stated in a statement.

"The mission of the Sheriff's Office is to provide safety and security for Court staff, the incarcerated, and those doing business in the Courts," the statement reads. "The consolidating of deputies to core areas will allow us to move deputies from outlying courthouses to staff additional courtrooms at the Hall of Justice."

But opponents of the plan suggested that the proposal to close the courthouses is a consequence of poor planning and misguided thinking.

Supervising Public Defender Gary Goodman called the proposal to shut down the courthouses a "horrible plan" that will have a significant and negative impact on members of the public, particularly older people who may have trouble getting to San Jose. The fact that Smith dropped the plan on a Friday night before a long weekend and just two weeks before the closure date makes the situation even worse, he said.

Since the Palo Alto Courthouse reopened on May 2, its two operational departments have been teeming with activity, Goodman said. He estimated that the court has processed between 200 and 300 matters in the first week alone.

In addition to serving as a place to resolve cases, the courthouse also includes the Kurt Kumli Resource Center, which offers services for people in the criminal justice system, and the Probation Department, which Goodman said is one of the courthouse's most important services. Goodman, who helped found the Kurt Kumli Resource Center, said that if Smith's plan proceeds and the building closes, all these services will come to an end.

Just on Thursday, Goodman said, an older man visited the Palo Alto Courthouse to voice his concern about possibly being a victim of a crime. He stated that the only reason he did so was because the building was open. He made it clear that he would not have been able to make it to San Jose, Goodman said.

"By shutting this building down with no notice, it hurts not only my clients, which clearly she doesn't care about, it hurts the public," Goodman said. "It hurts the police departments, the victims and the underserved population.

"With us being closed down, having to move into the courthouse and then shutting down, especially with no notice, it's just unconscionable. We can't shut it down again."

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Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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Sheriff's plan to shutter Palo Alto Courthouse gets pushback

Smith cites staffing shortages as reason for proposal to close courthouses in Palo Alto and Morgan Hill

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Jun 3, 2022, 9:57 am

Citing staffing shortages, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith plans to shut down the Palo Alto and Morgan Hill courthouses later this month.

The proposal, which Smith unveiled in a May 27 memo, calls for shutting down the two courthouses on June 13. The closure is necessary, she wrote, because of her office's "inability to adequately staff court security."

"Having to staff eight court facilities, with the corresponding metal detector functions, is not the most effective use of limited resources," Smith wrote.

Smith, whose is concluding her term in January after numerous high-profile scandals and an accusation of corrupt misconduct by the Santa Clara County Grand Jury, stated in the memo that the court's security division "finds itself in the very unfortunate position of not being able to safely and effectively staff all of the open court facilities simultaneously."

"Regrettably, the Sheriff's Office will no longer be able to staff the Palo Alto and South County Court facilities effective June 13, 2022," the memo states. "We will consolidate all resources from Palo Alto and South County to the remaining facilities to be able to provide safe and effective security services.

"We do not take this matter lightly and will continue to explore other models to provide the service that the Courts expect and should receive."

The announcement, which was made just before Memorial Day weekend, came as a shock to Santa Clara County Superior Court officials. Presiding Judge Theodore Zayner responded with a memo Wednesday that pushed back against Smith's plan to shut down the courthouses, which had been closed for much of the pandemic. The Palo Alto Courthouse at 270 Grant Ave. reopened on May 2. Prior to that date, all court business involving north county residents was conducted at the Hall of Justice in San Jose.

"It is disappointing and surprising to hear on such short notice of your apparent determination to discontinue deputy staffing for the Palo Alto and Morgan Hill courthouses, when the court has not increased the number of operating courtrooms while we attempt to serve the North County and South County communities," Zayner wrote in a June 1 memo.

"We have no current intent to close any courthouses or courtrooms, and we look forward to working with your office, the office of the County Executive, and our justice partners to craft a solution that maintains access to justice throughout the County and across all our court facilities."

Smith stated in the memo that since October 2021 her office has been requiring all staff to work overtime to provided the staffing that is required to meet all of its mandated functions. This burden, she wrote, "has fallen on other understaffed divisions to achieve a minimum of 25-30 deputies per day for Court Security alone."

"This ongoing overtime mandate, in addition to other factors, has been very difficult on our staff," Smith wrote.

She noted that it takes about 18 months to recruit, hire and a train a person for the deputy sheriff position and pointed to numerous other factors for the staffing shortage, including decisions by Santa Clara County officials to institute a hiring freeze and then eliminate vacant positions in her office.

"The effects of this hiring freeze coupled with early retirements have led us to this critical juncture," she wrote.

She also noted that her office is losing deputies to other agencies that either offer higher salaries or are located in areas with a lower cost of living. This year, she wrote, the Sheriff's Office has lost seven deputies to other agencies and eight others are in the hiring process with other agencies.

"Employees are leaving at an alarming rate which has had a significant impact on staffing throughout the agency," she wrote. "Our ability to provide even minimum levels of service, has become a safety issue for our staff and those we serve."

According to the Sheriff's Office, the low staffing levels are requiring 145 overtime shifts in courts every week. Closing the two courthouses would "substantially increase the number of courtrooms that can be utilized by integrating staff to key locations," the office stated in a statement.

"The mission of the Sheriff's Office is to provide safety and security for Court staff, the incarcerated, and those doing business in the Courts," the statement reads. "The consolidating of deputies to core areas will allow us to move deputies from outlying courthouses to staff additional courtrooms at the Hall of Justice."

But opponents of the plan suggested that the proposal to close the courthouses is a consequence of poor planning and misguided thinking.

Supervising Public Defender Gary Goodman called the proposal to shut down the courthouses a "horrible plan" that will have a significant and negative impact on members of the public, particularly older people who may have trouble getting to San Jose. The fact that Smith dropped the plan on a Friday night before a long weekend and just two weeks before the closure date makes the situation even worse, he said.

Since the Palo Alto Courthouse reopened on May 2, its two operational departments have been teeming with activity, Goodman said. He estimated that the court has processed between 200 and 300 matters in the first week alone.

In addition to serving as a place to resolve cases, the courthouse also includes the Kurt Kumli Resource Center, which offers services for people in the criminal justice system, and the Probation Department, which Goodman said is one of the courthouse's most important services. Goodman, who helped found the Kurt Kumli Resource Center, said that if Smith's plan proceeds and the building closes, all these services will come to an end.

Just on Thursday, Goodman said, an older man visited the Palo Alto Courthouse to voice his concern about possibly being a victim of a crime. He stated that the only reason he did so was because the building was open. He made it clear that he would not have been able to make it to San Jose, Goodman said.

"By shutting this building down with no notice, it hurts not only my clients, which clearly she doesn't care about, it hurts the public," Goodman said. "It hurts the police departments, the victims and the underserved population.

"With us being closed down, having to move into the courthouse and then shutting down, especially with no notice, it's just unconscionable. We can't shut it down again."

Comments

MarkW
Registered user
University South
on Jun 3, 2022 at 11:50 am
MarkW, University South
Registered user
on Jun 3, 2022 at 11:50 am

Reporters must closely investigate the real estate transactions for these courthouse properties. This reeks of a back door deal wherein a real estate developer directs money to Laurie Smith, legally or otherwise, in exchange for preferential access to the closed county properties. Sheriff Smith is no stranger to corruption (ref. “Santa Clara Co. Sheriff faces civil corruption charges that could lead to removal”, Hoodline.com, Dec 21, 2021).


CEQA Required
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2022 at 12:14 pm
CEQA Required, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 3, 2022 at 12:14 pm

It’s probably a good idea to temporarily shutter the Palo Alto Courthouse anyway with the ongoing police station construction on one side and the new Teacher Housing construction about to start on the other side of it at 231 Grant.


eileen
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jun 3, 2022 at 12:47 pm
eileen , College Terrace
Registered user
on Jun 3, 2022 at 12:47 pm

CEQA, the courthouse was closed and just recently opened on May 2nd.
I think Smith is not talking about a temporary closure again.

This issue should be taken up with our PA City Council.
We need to have a courthouse near this important city too. San Jose is not close.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 3, 2022 at 1:28 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 3, 2022 at 1:28 pm

Jury Duty for those of us in Palo Alto is a joke when having to get to San Jose! This is a big county - or feels it when called.


Green Gables
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 3, 2022 at 1:42 pm
Green Gables, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jun 3, 2022 at 1:42 pm

Maybe the deputies are leaving because of the Sheriff.


ALB
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jun 3, 2022 at 3:19 pm
ALB, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jun 3, 2022 at 3:19 pm

Smith’s decision is wrong and unpopular. She is on the way out and appears to want to flex her last gasp of power. The county of Santa Clara needs the courthouse to remain in Palo Alto to serve constituents. What was she ‘thinking?’


William Hitchens
Registered user
Mountain View
on Jun 3, 2022 at 4:01 pm
William Hitchens, Mountain View
Registered user
on Jun 3, 2022 at 4:01 pm

So, has soon-to-be ex-Sheriff Smith already started her grievance and revenge tour? Just like a certain ex-"president"? What a dubious title for him. People like this seem to be into scorched earth policies when their undeserved, huge egos are severely bruised. Good riddance.

And kudos to Green Gables for emphasizing the obvious. And to Bystander for pointing out what an enormous hardship it is for up here to be forced to fight our way to downtown San Jose to do mandatory jury duty.


Banes
Registered user
Greater Miranda
on Jun 4, 2022 at 9:25 am
Banes , Greater Miranda
Registered user
on Jun 4, 2022 at 9:25 am

MarkW makes an interesting point. The greed is becoming unconscionable here in former sleepy PA, Even during the technology boom it was till a sleepy little city. With all the hefty property & business taxes the County can no longer afford what infrastructure & police services it had afforded through decades & countless recessions, booms & Busts? Perhaps it never should have been reopened in the first place?
This looks like an accounting problem, and clearly more polarized politics. Do none of the giant tech corporations pay local taxes? Google, Facebook WtF? Something is very queer here and needs extensive investigation.


David
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 4, 2022 at 5:36 pm
David, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jun 4, 2022 at 5:36 pm

If they are facing a shortage of personnel, it’s odd that the Sheriff would choose to stop serving the criminal courts in Palo Alto and Morgan Hill ahead of the traffic court in Santa Clara. The Santa Clara County Sheriff of all people should understand priorities.


JR
Registered user
Palo Verde
on Jun 4, 2022 at 9:12 pm
JR, Palo Verde
Registered user
on Jun 4, 2022 at 9:12 pm

This smells of corruption and waste. Palo Alto is not being served well be Santa Clara County in several regards. Maybe it is possible for Palo Alto to branch off into its own county, The City and County of Palo Alto has a nice ring to it (similar to City and County of San Francisco).


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