Courting a New Court
Bishop City Council held a special meeting on Monday, February 10 to hear a presentation on plans for a new court building in downtown Bishop.
Court Executive Officer Pam Foster and presiding judge Brian Lamb spoke before city council, detailing the Superior Court’s past attempts at getting a courthouse built in Bishop.
The process for building a new courthouse began twelve years ago, when the new Inyo County court was put on a state project list and then subsequently funded in November of the following year. In early 2011, Bishop was determined to be the location of the new courthouse.
By 2013, the pieces were falling into place for constructing the new courthouse. Two parcels were still being considered as sites, the MacIver Parcel and the parking lot parcel on Church Street, with escrow projected to close in 2014 and construction to follow in 2017.
That plan never materialized.
Foster noted that 2013 brought “tough times for the court,” delaying the process, and in 2015, Bishop City Council opted not to move forward with selling the parcel on Church street, which forced the Superior Court to begin their search for a suitable location all over again.
A further blow came in 2018, when then Governor Jerry Brown, who as Foster noted, “wasn’t particularly friendly to the courts,: passed a bill that forced all the courts “back to the drawing board.”
Foster told an anecdote of a court that “was literally 2 weeks away from a groundbreaking ceremony and [Brown] pulled the funding for the project.”
According to Foster, Governor Gavin Newsom’s latest budget, from January 2020, includes $2 billion in funding spread over the next five years that will cover five projects per year.
Around the same time, the Judicial Council of California approved a plan that will provide $5.34 billion over the same time period for 33 projects.
That new funding means that those projects that Gov. Brown had previously ordered to start over are now scrambling to have their plans ready when money becomes available.
Foster reported that Inyo county currently sits at #28 on the priority list with a projected cost of $50 million. Compared to other projects that Foster mentioned, including a proposed $900 million building Los Angeles and a 40-room courthouse in Fresno, the Inyo project is quite small.
The relative ease and quickness of completion that comes with that size is what Foster believes will make Inyo’s project desirable to the funding bodies: it’s an easy box to check off if the timelines work out.
Judge Lamb lobbied the council to seriously consider the central location that City Council rejected in 2015, “The idea of having the new courthouse in the city core, I think, is really the best outcome.”
He continued, “It’s not just sentimental because courthouses belong in city cores, it’s where our customers come from and how they get to court and their ability to attend court.” Lamb noted that the central location would allow for easier client-attorney meetings as well as provide increased access to services within the same complex.
Lamb addressed the failure to launch in 2015, explaining that “The last time we addressed the issue, maybe we didn’t take the time to walk it through with the council and the community to address legitimate concerns that people have about building a courthouse here in Bishop.”
Foster closed out her remarks by asking for support from City Council, stating “I think the sooner that we show judicial council and the governor that we’re back on this process and that we’re working towards it as quickly as possible, the better off we will be in the long run.”
Councilmember Stephen Muchovej questioned Lamb and Foster as to the possibility of making the new building multi-use, pointing to a recent audit that highlighted the need for a new police station.
“If we can combine these sorts of projects, we’d have more bang for our buck,” said Muchovej.
Lamb answered that in the past, counties were responsible for building courthouses and could therefore incorporate other governmental departments or offices within the building. The more recent division between courts and counties, Lamb explained, is “intended to ensure that courts have an independent source of funding,” which makes integrating services more difficult.
Mayor Laura Smith ran with the idea of cooperating between court and county, noting “ I see cooperation possibly being the reconfiguring of the whole parking lot…I see a lot of space in the parking lot that isn’t being used for parking.” Smith advocated for a campus-style approach to the project.
Bishop City Council ultimately moved to support the project in Bishop, citing a centralized government presence in downtown Bishop along with potential economic boosts to the surrounding area.
“I am thankful for the second opportunity”, Mayor Smith said, “Sometimes, things happen and you gain greater resolve”