The Pierce County Council has eliminated the Superior Court seat held by Judge Michael Hecht just a day after he resigned.
The council unanimous approved an emergency ordinance eliminating Hecht’s position at its regular meeting Tuesday.
Council members said the move would save money as the county struggles to balance its 2010 budget. The remaining $19,000 of Hecht’s 2009 compensation will be used to hire pro-tem judges so cases will continue to be heard.
“At some point you have to consider lots of different things that you wouldn’t consider in the past,” Council Chairman Roger Bush, R-Graham, said in an interview after the meeting.
The move came with no public notice and apparently took County Executive Pat McCarthy by surprise. A spokesman for McCarthy said she had been in meetings all day and needed more time to study the council’s decision.
Presiding Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff could not be reached for comment.
Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist learned of the proposal on Tuesday before the council vote. He said failing to fill Hecht’s seat would aggravate a backlog of Superior Court cases that he and judges have been working to address.
“The community has suffered for nine months because (Hecht’s seat) has been empty,” Lindquist said. “We shouldn’t have to suffer another year with an empty department.”
The council’s action is the latest twist involving Hecht, who was elected last year but has spent most of 2009 on paid leave in light of alleged criminal conduct. He was convicted last week of felony harassment and paying a man for sex.
Hecht resigned on Monday, and Gov. Chris Gregoire was preparing to begin a search for his replacement.
The County Council’s decision apparently puts that search on hold.
Superior Court judges are part county, part state employees. State law authorizes Pierce County to have up to 24 Superior Court judges, though the council has authorized only 22 positions until now.
Tuesday’s actions would reduce the number of Pierce County Superior Court judges to 21. By comparison, King County is allotted up to 58 Superior Court judges, but currently employs only 53.
Bush said the council’s staff has not found another example of a county reducing the number of Superior Court judges.
The move comes as the council is pouring over McCarthy’s 2010 budget in search of additional savings.
In the face of declining revenue, McCarthy has proposed a $792 million budget – 8 percent lower than this year’s already reduced budget.
But in recent budget hearings council members have expressed concern that McCarthy’s revenue assumptions may prove optimistic. They’re considering additional spending cuts.
“We have yet to hear good (budget) news,” Bush said. “We keep hearing negative news.”
For the rest of 2009, the remaining $19,000 Hecht was to be paid will be used to pay for pro-tem judges who can hear cases. Bush said that will amount to an increase in Superior Court funding this year, as Hecht has been on paid leave since March and has not been hearing cases.
The council hasn’t made a final decision on whether the post will be included in the 2010 budget.
Councilman Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, said it probably won’t be included initially.
He said the council could reinstate the post at any time if revenue improves. He expects the council to revisit the issue early next year.
Lindquist said he has encouraged council members to pay for the position effective March 1. He said he’s optimistic “they will see the wisdom of funding the position in 2010.”
Bush said he’s been thinking about eliminating Hecht’s position since August. But he said the council could not legally eliminate a Superior Court post held by a sitting judge.
He said the opportunity to eliminate the post came after Hecht resigned on Monday.
State and county laws require public notice and hearings before the council can act on an ordinance. But there is an exception for emergency circumstances.
The council cited declining county revenues and the need to act quickly in order to spend the rest of Hecht’s 2009 salary on pro- tem judges.
“The emergency is, we’re running out of money,” Muri said. “And any time we see an opportunity that requires quick action, we’re going to take it.”
Hecht, 59, defeated incumbent Superior Court Judge Sergio Armijo last year. But in January The News Tribune reported that Tacoma police and state authorities were investigating Hecht on possible criminal charges.
On Oct. 28 a jury found Hecht guilty of buying sex from a male prostitute and threatening to kill a man after Hecht found out he was talking about their alleged previous sexual relationship.
Hecht is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 19.
Here’s the press release from the Pierce County Council:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Nov. 3, 2009
In light of Pierce County Superior Court Judge Michael Hecht’s felony conviction and subsequent resignation, the County Council today unanimously passed an emergency ordinance eliminating Hecht’s soon-to-be vacant seat to save money in a still-worsening budget environment.
The ordinance dissolves Department 9 of Superior Court effective Nov. 16 – when Hecht’s resignation takes effect – and shifts the department’s $19,000 in remaining 2009 funds to hiring pro-tem judges so cases will continue to be heard. The move may help realize savings in the 2010 budget, which will need severe reductions due to a continued drop in county revenue.
“We want to put this unfortunate episode behind us and move quickly to ensure there’s no interruption in judicial services in our county,” Council Chairman Roger Bush said. “Eliminating this vacant position prevents us from making more drastic budget reductions later on.”
The council took the unusual step of declaring an emergency, Bush noted, because ever-dropping revenues are putting the county’s public-safety departments at imminent risk of reductions during the remainder of 2009. Reallocating the funds in Department 9 will free-up money for pro-tem judge help that was unavailable while Hecht was drawing a salary from Pierce County but unable to carry out his duties.
“The intent is to drive more money into the court this year and save additional revenue next year and into the future,” Bush said.
State law sets the maximum number of Superior Court judges in each county. Pierce County’s maximum number is 24; there will be 21 after the council ordinance takes effect. By comparison, King County is allotted a maximum of 58 Superior Court judges but currently employs 53, and Spokane County is allowed a maximum of 13 judges but has 12.
The County Council will continue to review the proposed 2010 budget until Nov. 10, when councilmembers are scheduled to adopt the final budget at their regular 3 p.m. meeting in the Council Chambers (930 Tacoma Ave. S., Room 1045, Tacoma). A complete schedule of remaining budget hearings is available on the council’s budget Web page, www.piercecountywa.gov/pc/abtus/ourorg/council/budget.htm <http://www.piercecountywa.gov/pc/abtus/ourorg/council/budget.htm> .
CONTACT: Brad Chatfield, Council Communications Manager, 253-798-6626