WALWORTH — At a special board meeting Feb. 3, the Walworth Village Board delayed action on creating a second branch of its municipal court.
Village President David Rasmussen said the village attorney had yet to finalize the language for an ordinance creating the second branch, so the agenda item was held over for the Feb. 10 regular board meeting.
The board originally suggested creating a second branch to solve “trust issues” with Municipal Judge John “Jay” Peterson.
“It comes down to communication and trust,” Rasmussen said. “Why didn’t you come in and talk to the chief of police and the attorney? Instead it’s been directives handed down. I practice law, too. I know you have discretion in some of these things where you say you don’t.”
In December, the board questioned how Peterson was collecting fines from defendants he found indigent. Peterson said at previous board meetings that he doesn’t make defendants swear under oath that they’re receiving government assistance or that they’re unable to pay.
Rasmussen looked up state statutes regarding indigency hearings in municipal courts during the board meeting.
“There’s no bright line that says you have to classify them as indigent,” he said to Peterson. “These issues came up months ago. You should have checked on (this issue) then, not now. To come in here at this late of stage and try to explain things... it’s too late. You don’t have our trust, and that’s a huge problem.”
“I think this second (branch of the) court is a tremendous overreach,” Peterson said. “If it’s a decision based on the amount of money owed due to indigency, it’s a stretch. I don’t understand why it’s needed. I would love to hear a reason for the creation of this second (branch).”
Trustee Kent Johnson said the village board would prefer to not create a second branch.
“We don’t want to do this,” Johnson said to Peterson. “We would rather you resign, but you won’t. We wish we didn’t have to form another court. That’s my opinion (not the board’s).”
When Peterson said he was elected to do a job and he wanted to finish his term, Johnson questioned how the public would feel knowing that Peterson was getting paid but not doing anything.
Since December, the village has not held a court session because Court Clerk Ellen Reddy resigned. The board didn’t officially accept her resignation, nor has it approved an appointment for a new clerk.
Court can’t be held without a clerk.
“We are not creating a second branch just to get a rubber stamp from the judge,” Rasmussen said. “That would never happen. We want a judge we can trust, who communicates with the board and with the village officials.”
Peterson and Rasmussen traded comments for nearly 40 minutes about the fine collection process and Peterson’s courtroom.
“If you were just as tough on people who come in front of you (in court) as you are with me, we wouldn’t have this problem,” Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen asked the other board members if they had comments for the discussion.
“There’s no trust, and we need to move on,” Trustee Ed Synder said.
“We understand the issue. You don’t understand. That’s the problem,” Trustee Leroy Nordmeyer said. “You’re not getting a vote of confidence from the board. You’ve made the same arguments over and over again. You have blinders on.”
In December, Peterson ordered that all pretrial negotiations for the village be done with an attorney rather than the police department.
Peterson said most courts in the state do pretrials that way, though Police Chief Chris Severt said State Patrol officers conduct pretrials for their citations.
Because Peterson is the judge, he is allowed to make decisions about how court cases are handled in the village. His decisions are legal and binding.
Johnson questioned how and when Peterson made the decision to change the pretrial process.
“You should have come to us in September and October when we were doing the budgets,” Johnson said to Peterson. “That’s something that needs to be budgeted. You’re out of touch with that process.”
Because of Peterson’s order, the village will have to pay legal fees for its attorney for each pretrial meeting.
“I had an aha moment about the pretrials,” Peterson said. “Do you really want to be the only court in Walworth County that have police do the pretrials?”
Peterson also directed that the clerk’s office be further separated from the police department. Previously, Reddy’s desk had been next to the police administrative assistant’s desk in the village hall.
The real problem
Peterson told the Regional News on Feb. 4 that the village board has “no allegations of any wrongdoing on behalf of the court” or the judge.
“The money is all accounted for,” he said. “Tickets are being processed as required. The court is running within the statutory guidelines.”
Peterson said no one who is determined indigent and unable to pay is given a pass on the citation.
“They still have to pay,” he said. “The money is still owed, but I can’t confine a person for failure to pay.”
If a person was determined able to pay, yet refused to follow the judge’s order to pay, Peterson said he could issue a warrant. He said he can’t issue warrants for people who are unable to pay.
Peterson said the village board is asking him to judge defendants in his court based on their physical appearance or what type of phone they’re using.
“I follow the statutory definition of indigency,” he said. “If they’re receiving government assistance or their income is below the poverty level, I can’t make them pay.”