The Grand Isle County Courthouse is now open five days a week for limited in-person services, more than six months after state authorities first reduced its hours of operation.
But the North Hero building remains closed for in-person hearings and trials because it lacks a mechanical ventilation system, which state officials said the courthouse needs to provide security for those proceedings. during the pandemic.
Some local officials, including Grand Isle State’s Attorney Douglas DiSabito, welcomed the return of Monday-Friday service that began Feb. 28, but expressed frustration that hearings and trials on the Champlain Islands continue to keep their distance.
Vermont court officials have known for more than a year that the courthouse needs a ventilation system, DiSabito said, but still haven’t given him a specific timeline for fully reopening the building. He said Grand Isle is the only county in Vermont, other than Essex County, that does not have at least one fully functioning courthouse today.
“I just don’t think there’s any urgency on the part of the court administration for this to happen for Grand Isle County,” DiSabito said.
Scott Griffith, the state court’s temporary administrator, wrote in an email that the judiciary worked with a vendor to design an HVAC system for the courthouse and requested about $590,000 from the courthouse. Legislative Assembly to buy and install it.
He estimated that once funding was approved, it would take 12 to 15 months before the project was completed.
“In the meantime,” Griffith said, “court staff are reviewing all revisions and updates to guidance issued by public health authorities to ensure building access for in-person court proceedings is as wide as possible in safe.”
Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, said he expects funding for the project to be included in the state’s 2022 capital bill, noting that installing a HVAC system at North Hero is “a must”. This bill is currently before the Senate Institutions Committee, on which Mazza sits.
In December, the justice demand about $5.7 million from the Legislature for new or upgraded HVAC systems at a dozen courthouses, including North Hero’s.
The Legislature previously appropriated $800,000 to the judiciary to plan and design this HVAC work during its 2021 session, Gregg Mousley, the agency’s chief finance and administration officer, wrote in a December memo. , though officials haven’t used most of that funding because they haven’t. get designs in time to do it.
Griffith said that to ensure Grand Isle County trials are timely, the judiciary may seek to move some of its trials to courthouses in other counties.
DiSabito and Joanne Batchelder, one of two assistant judges in Grand Isle County, both have concerns about the idea. DiSabito said the cases probably wouldn’t need to be transferred if the state had already invested in renovating the Islands courthouse.
“That would in no way be fair,” Batchelder said, citing the time it may take for islanders to travel to services in Franklin and, in particular, Chittenden County.
DiSabito said in an email that he has several cases ready for trial – some of which predate the pandemic – involving victims whose patience is “running out”.
“These delays only re-victimize them – solely because of their residency,” he said.
The Grand Isle County Courthouse, built in 1824, is one of the oldest still in operation in Vermont. Batchelder said state officials have tried to close the courthouse in the past, but the islanders still opposed these efforts.
Security coverage had been an issue at the courthouse since last summer, when the Grand Isle County Sheriff’s Department told court officials it no longer had the capacity to staff the building. In early August, then court administrator Patricia Gabel announced that the building would be closed to the public three days a week.
State officials did not immediately line up a full-time security replacement, citing staffing issues at the Sheriff’s Department that were not unique to Grand Isle County.
At the time, DiSabito and other local officials raised concerns that limiting access to the building, even temporarily, could be dangerous for people seeking relief from abusive situations.
For example, those who wanted to file court documents in person — including filings involving emergency relief from abuse, harassment and sexual assault — needed to go to Franklin County courthouses.
The North Hero courthouse reopened for limited in-person services four days a week in October, with security provided by an armed court officer.
In an email to DiSabito on Feb. 17, which the state’s attorney shared with VTDigger, Griffith wrote that the state now plans to have a deputy from Securitas, which is a private security company, to ensure coverage of the courthouse.
Griffith said the Chittenden County Sheriff’s Office agreed to send a state-paid deputy to help with security there as well.
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