OTTUMWA — The upgrade to the elevator in the Wapello County Courthouse could create complications for court proceedings in May.
Mary Ann Brown, the Burlington-based chief judge of the 8th Judicial District, shared her concerns with the board of supervisors Tuesday regarding the logistical hurdles the elevator project could create for court proceedings.
The elevator project is part of the update to the courthouse's sprinkler fire system, and the elevator portion is expected to take about four weeks. However, while the work is tentatively scheduled for May, no exact timeline was given for a start date or completion date, auditor Kelly Spurgeon said.
"I'm just in limbo just like everybody else is," she said.
Because of the pandemic, jury trials were postponed until Feb. 1. But May figures to be a busy month for the district judges, who will conduct jury trials among other proceedings.
Brown said they ran into the same issue in Jefferson County a couple years ago, but that didn't ease the concern this time.
"We've kind of lived through it once, and it took us weeks to get ready to make the changes we needed to make," Brown said. "Pretty much everything we have here is on the second, third and fourth floors, and we're required to make things accessible for the people using it."
Brown said during the Jefferson County project, some proceedings were offsite for "a month and a half." She said that county made arrangements to lease an old school, and pay utilities for it, and internet service was required.
"It's one of those things where we can't decide on Friday that we're having court someplace else on Monday," she said. "We just need to start that conversation about what the plan is. We have to have space that every person can get into freely and easily."
Vice chair Jerry Parker said the court needed to list its "problem areas" so the county could address. District court administrator Heidi Baker clicked off a number of items that will take place during the month.
"We have five jury trials scheduled, nine non-jury trials scheduled," she said. "Every Monday we have mental health and treatment court here in this courtroom. We have adult drug court every Thursday. We have district court services every Monday, and we have associate court services every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday upstairs every week."
Brown said if a trial has to be moved offsite, "someone has to pay those jurors to go out of county."
"With COVID, I'm not sure people want to be on a bus with each other, so maybe we would have to pay people the mileage to go offsite," she said. "If we do that, we need to know the certain costs associated with that. Some of that could go to the county, because legally they're obligated to provide physical facilities for the court."
Baker posited a scenario in which jury selection could take place somewhere in Ottumwa, such as an empty building or church, and then the jurors would be paid for the travel offsite.
"It takes planning to know where we can move each week," Brown said. "One week we might be able to go to Fairfield, another week to Davis County, another to Van Buren County. It's a challenge, but that's why talking about it now is great."
Supervisor Brian Morgan wondered if they'd need just smaller rooms, but both Brown and Baker noted there would also need to be a room for the jury, a room for a lawyer to speak to a client, etc.
"We understand there's a lot going on here. My whole thing is that we have empty spaces at the mall, but a J.C. Penney or a Herberger's is just so wide open," Morgan said. "We don't want to do a build-out on something we're going to do for 30 days, so there's a few different office-type settings around town for lease."
Brown said the district would need "one or two places we could hold court physically."
"And then five times, once a week, we need a place big enough for a jury trial," she said. "But not every jury trial goes, and sometimes we don't know until the day before that something is going to happen."
Parker conceded that May could be a challenge.
"There are a lot of options, but it's just going to be uncomfortable," he said.
The district agreed to send the supervisors a daily schedule throughout the month highlighting its needs.