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Mayor Vows to Battle Court Move to Oakland

By Richard Brenneman
Friday December 01, 2006

Mayor Tom Bates vowed Thursday to do everything in his power to reverse the impending move of the city’s traffic and small claims courts to Oakland. 

City officials are still struggling to determine the impact of the move, which was revealed only Monday following a tip from a Daily Planet reader. 

Starting today (Friday) all tickets issued in Berkeley, Albany and within the boundaries of the East Bay Regional Parks District will call for appearances at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in Oakland. 

Other agencies affected with be BART Police of the California Highway Patrol, said Berkeley Police spokesperson Officer Ed Galvan. 

Also moving south will be the court’s small claims calendar, which handles lawsuits for plaintiffs not represented by attorneys and seeking damages of less than $7,500. 

City Manager Phil Kamlarz said he first learned of the court move in a phone message from a reporter Monday afternoon. 

“There’s usually much better communication,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out what’s going on.” 

“This will have a potentially huge impact,” said Officer Galvan. 

In addition to extended travel times for law enforcement officers summoned to testify in traffic cases, parking will also be a problem—especially for defendants and small claims litigants. 

“There’s no place to park within blocks except for the parking structure,” which is not inexpensive, Galvan said. 

Kamlarz said the city had just finished refurbishing the courthouse and is in the midst of negotiating a new lease contract with the courts. 

One of the immediate challenges the city faces is to see if there is a way to “bundle” citations for individual officers so their court appearances can be concentrated in specific periods. 

Without bundling or some similar process, an appearance for one traffic citation could cost between an hour and an hour and a half of an officer’s time, compared with the 10 to 20 minutes it now takes. 

Cisco DeVries, chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bates, said news of the move had come as a surprise to him and the mayor. “We were all surprised,” he said. 

Bates said the move probably resulted from the City Council’s rejection six years ago of a county plan to build a new courthouse in Berkeley. 

Five councilmembers rejected a plan to build the facility at the site of the Pacific Gas & Electric building at the northeast corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Center St., and an alternative location between the Berkeley Public Library and the High School, which is now occupied by the Library Gardens apartment complex , was rejected by the property owners. 

“When the council decided not to put in the full courthouse, the court probably decided to start phasing out operations here,” Bates said. 

First to go was the court’s criminal division. The move of small claims and traffic will leave only one civil court, which Alameda County Superior Court Executive Officer Pat S. Sweeten said will remain in Berkeley. 

Bates said the move of the criminal court to Oakland has been costing the city $100,000 a year, while the move of the traffic court could cost even more. 

“I am going to do everything I can to fight this, and if it goes through, I am going to do everything within my power to get it back,” Bates said. “The people of Berkeley need to have this court here.” 

Another foe of the move is Assemblymember Loni Hancock, the mayor’s spouse. “Loni’s prepared to do whatever she can,” Bates said. 

The mayor said he has already called Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson to enlist his help. 

While tickets issued this morning will call for appearances at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse at 661 Washington St. in Oakland after the first of the year, the court itself will be moving between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and will be open for business at its new location on Tuesday, Jan. 2.