Tonawanda News

May 8, 2013

Courtroom makeover

By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Whether for a traffic violations or a felony, those who have a date in the North Tonawanda City Court during the next several weeks will stand before a judge next door in the council chambers. 

The temporary arrangement is due to a $48,000 state-funded courtroom makeover for what officials say will be the first of its kind in its decades-long history. 

The venture was spearheaded after a review was conducted on the condition of the courtroom by the New York State Unified Court System’s 8th Judicial District, according to District Executive Andrew Isenberg, who oversees court operations in the eight counties in Western New York.  

“It’s been many decades since work has been done in the court in the City of North Tonawanda,” he said, adding that despite a tight budget the rehabilitation the project was given priority because of its condition. “It had a very dated feel.” 

Work began last week to add new flooring, window treatments, a renovated jury box, counsel tables for lawyers and public seating, while the 1970s-style wood paneling — plenty chic at the time but outdated by several decades now —already has been permanently removed. 

Isenberg described the move as necessary and said making such renovations can bring a greater respect to the order of law with some evidence suggesting that courtroom rehabilitations can lower public outbursts. 

“I’m not saying this is the Taj Mahal that we’re putting together,” he said. “But a courtroom that is modern, there’s less of a chance of incidents that will give rise to security concerns. People are more respectful of the judge and the court staff. Take the city of Niagara Falls which built a brand new courthouse. The number of arrests inside of the court building has plummeted.” 

Whether that takes place or not in North Tonawanda, City Court Judge William R. Lewis said the switch to the council chambers should have little effect on the court proceedings, though a few minor difficulties may arise such as the shuffling of paperwork, a recording system and computers. 

The necessity of a jury trial could also prove to be another hurdle, though none are currently scheduled for the month of May. Security is still in place with slight modifications. 

“It’s a little bit of an inconvenience but it’s nothing we can’t live with,” said Lewis, who has been holding court in North Tonawanda since 2001. “And my staff has been really good.” 

The city, which will pay for the project up front but will be reimbursed by the state by the end of the year, was also able to contribute some input into the design of the courtroom renovations, which will be modeled in part after the council chambers, according to Isenberg. 

“This is a project that is going to be of great value,” he said. “It’s going to update the appearance of the courtroom. We feel that when members of the public appear in court they should be doing so in a dignified setting. Out experience has been that when these kinds of improvements are made it enhances the experience the public has had with the court system. At the end of the day we see more efficiencies.”

BIG RED NUMBER BREAKOUT: $48,000 Amount of money it will cost to renovate the North Tonawanda City Court, being reimbursed by New York state

Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.