A new courthouse in Seaside?

“It would pretty much be a slap in the face,” says Soledad Mayor Fred Ledesma.

He is speaking to the Weekly the afternoon of May 2, a few hours before two city council meetings – one in Greenfield, the other in Seaside – at which Greenfield would declare its intent to fight for a new courthouse they maintain is rightfully theirs, and Seaside would present preliminary plans for a spiffy new civic center on former Fort Ord lands that would include an equally spiffy new courthouse.

That slap in the face, Ledesma and Greenfield proponents say, is an issue of economic justice, and access to justice as well.

Ledesma recounts his experience as a South County property manager in need of the system. “I went to the Monterey courthouse to file an eviction notice. I had to go three times, it took almost three hours round trip each time, and I still never got it done,” he says. “That wasn’t what bothered me. It was like – you really expect people to go to Monterey? It doesn’t make any sense.”

The story starts about 15 years ago, when the state Judicial Council, the policymaking body of the California court system, identified South County as having an “immediate need” for a new courthouse to replace one in King City. Greenfield “welcomed us with open arms” and the Judicial Council spent “buckets of money” coming up with plans, says Monterey County Superior Court Presiding Judge Lydia Villarreal. And by 2012, everyone was ready to break ground.

Then funding dried up, the Judicial Council put Greenfield on indefinite hold and access to justice for South County residents got that much more difficult. For some people, especially those without vehicles, planning a trip to the Monterey courthouse on Aguajito Road is like planning a trip to the moon.

Last fall, plans for a new courthouse began to ramp up, and the word “Greenfield” wasn’t involved. In 2017, the Judicial Council issued a 71-page report on the seismic risk ratings of all California courthouses; the Monterey courthouse was ranked “very high risk.” It, along with 14 other courthouses, are the highest priority for mitigation action.

Not so fast, comes the county. Resource Management Agency Director Carl Holm told theMonterey Herald – despite two seismic reports that state otherwise – that the Monterey courthouse has no structural issues that would require an immediate seismic retrofit. Beyond the seismic issues, workers there have complained about fire safety, water intrusion and rats.

The rhetoric became ultra-heated in the past two weeks, when County Supervisor Luis Alejo jumped into the fray after he found out that Seaside had been talking about the possibility of opening a new courthouse in that city, a story the Weekly reported last year.

He publicly accused both court Executive Officer Chris Ruhl and Villarreal of lying about their behavior and intent. Alejo told one reporter that Villarreal – a co-founder of the Center for Community Advocacy, which provides education and legal support to farmworkers and low-income families, and a former attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance – had fabricated the safety issues.

Villarreal won’t address the attacks on her character, saying, “I think it’s important that the court focus on what our work is.

“We have been fighting for the South County courthouse for a long time, and we have tried over the past few years to figure out if there was a way to break the logjam. We’ve come up with different ideas, but nothing has worked. We keep lobbying for our South County courthouse.”

Alejo and fellow Supervisor Chris Lopez traveled on May 6 to Sacramento to lobby Gov. Gavin Newsom. They may find an ally in Seaside Councilmember Jon Wizard, who agrees a courthouse location is an economic justice and access issue. He believes it’s possible the county could see two new courthouses, a scenario I find unlikely, but a reminder it doesn’t need to be an us-versus-them scenario.

“Two communities, economically depressed and underserved, can’t receive benefits from the state at the same time?” Wizard says. “Maybe I’m naive and optimistic, but I don’t understand why it can’t happen.”

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