By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer
The Ridgecrest division of Kern County’s Superior Court will hold a public information meeting today, Friday, at 10 am to discuss whether Ridgecrest’s court services will continue to stay in Ridgecrest or be combined with Mojave and relocated to a “New East County Courthouse” near Tehachapi. According to a notice posted by the Superior Court of California, County of Kern, this meeting is “for the purpose of providing information and receiving justice partner and public input.” (“Justice partners” are governmental entities or other organizations that interact with the Judicial Branch to facilitate the provision of justice and conduct information exchanges, according to lawinsider.com).
Originally, new courthouses were planned for both Ridgecrest and Mojave in the Judicial Branch Five-year Infrastructure Plan for Fiscal Year 2022-23. That is, until then Presiding Judge Colette Humphrey asked for those plans to be withdrawn in a letter to Judge Brad R. Hill, who chairs the Court Facilities Advisory Committee for California’s Judicial Council. In her January 20, 2022 letter, she asked that “our New Ridgecrest [and Mojave’s] Courthouse be withdrawn from funding consideration” in favor of an idea to combine Ridgecrest and Mojave “into a single New East County Courthouse project of four courtrooms” located in the Tehachapi area. She wanted this idea to supersede the Court Capital Projects’ original plans for these two courts. Her rationale was space and staffing shortages in the current court facilities. She believed this new Tehachapi courthouse “has the potential to serve most – excluding the City of Ridgecrest and its surrounding areas – of our East Division communities/population.”
Humphrey’s letter was written after a series of email exchanges four months earlier with Ron Strand, Ridgecrest’s city manager. Strand’s first email began September 30, 2021, and included all Ridgecrest’s City Council members, Sheriff Donny Youngblood, and other community leaders in both Ridgecrest and Tehachapi. Strand informed her he had heard “a committee of [Kern county judges] plan to submit a request to the Court Facilities Advisory Committee of the Judicial Council of California” to request the closure of Ridgecrest and Mojave’s courts and to consolidate them in Tehachapi. He reminded her that on July 9, 2021, the Advisory Committee had “unanimously approved…new court facilities for Ridgecrest ($55M project) and Mojave…” He wrote, “Ridgecrest is anticipating its development.”
Strand told Humphrey he found it surprising this would be done without any input from Ridgecrest’s citizens, whose court building “serves an isolated community of nearly 40,000 people.” Closing the local court would “force our community to drive 70 miles to Tehachapi for most all court matters – including child custody, divorce, small claims, traffic, and criminal matters.” It would also “create an undue burden on our community and…unfairly impact crime victims…, the working poor and middle-class families – making access to court nearly impossible.” This idea “is a matter of significant public concern,” he continued, and the “communities of eastern Kern county should be involved.” He also stated that “the [upper] judicial officers should be open and transparent” regarding their “reasons and merits” of this idea. Strand confidently proclaimed, “The community of Ridgecrest [opposes this] proposal to close the Ridgecrest court.”
In her following email exchanges with Strand, Humphrey made several guarantees. She told him she would “seek his input going forward” and would not “make any decisions without hearing [positive or negative input] from all involved parties.” She would also keep him informed of “any formal discussions” in the future. She recognized “the importance of continuing to provide court access to the citizens of Ridgecrest and the surrounding area.” However, none of these promises were kept, and Humphrey wrote her letter to Hill four months later.
In response to the above concerns made by Strand and the neglect exhibited by Humphrey, Ridgecrest’s city and county officials raised this issue to newly appointed Presiding Judge J. Eric Bradshaw, who took Humphrey’s place. As a result of these discussions, Bradshaw called for today’s public meeting and presented three possible alternatives for public input. He then gave a June 2nd deadline for all participants to submit in writing any recommendations they may have. The News-Review has received copies of some of these recommendations.
Representing the local attorneys, Wayne Silva, President of the Indian Wells Bar Association, sent in a letter requesting “that the court maintain two courthouses in Ridgecrest.” He gave nine reasons for this. The increased travel was one of his major concerns, causing traveling difficulties not only for law enforcement but also for the base employees. Traveling would also affect people without adequate means, and the lack of “major transportation services from Ridgecrest to Mojave and Tehachapi” offers only limited services on certain days. As an attorney who is regularly in court, he highlighted the importance Ridgecrest courts have on other regions such as Lake Isabella, Inyokern, Randsburg, and several others. Silva also noted that there will be an increased need for local legal services as Ridgecrest’s population continues to grow with the expansion of the base.
Jeff Flores, Chairman of the Kern County Board of Supervisors, added an additional alternative to the judge’s three. He wrote that the Board “wishes to express strong support for a fourth alternative – one that provides new courthouse facilities in both Ridgecrest and Mojave.” He stated that this “offers the greatest flexibility and agency for the local court system to continue delivering quality services across a diverse geographic region…” He was not in favor of “a consolidating facility in the Tehachapi area.”
Ron Strand, City Manager, sent a detailed, chronological background of the two courtrooms in Ridgecrest – Divisions A and B, in order to inform the judge, who would not necessarily be familiar with their history. He wrote, “The current floor plan and design of the Division B building will not allow for modification or expansion for office space or public access.” Strand also informed the judge that the Ridgecrest courthouse was grouped in the “critical need” category since 2014 and rose to “immediate need” in 2019. He also informed the judge about the actions and promises from the judge’s predecessor by including the pertinent timeline and quotes from the 2021 emails between Humphrey and himself. He concluded that it is his opinion that “Judge Humphrey misled the Judicial Council with false and inaccurate information and did not follow the Site Selection and Acquisition Policy for Judicial Branch Facilities.”
Finally, Strand gave his recommendation to the presiding judge. Like others, he also added a fourth alternative, which was to “go back to the original plan that was in place for a decade.” He believes it will “cost the courts less funding overtime to maintain a new building than to operate and maintain the current Ridgecrest courthouse that has been identified for a replacement for over a decade.”
Lastly, Mayor Eric Bruen also sent a letter in anticipation of the Friday meeting. Along with Flores and Strand, he also believes Bradshaw’s three alternatives are not adequate choices “to satisfy the needs of the citizens of East Kern.” He asked Bradshaw to “reinstate the original plans for a new courthouse” in Ridgecrest. He wrote, “Asking our citizens to drive 90 minutes to reach any court is simply untenable and will ultimately have a substantially negative impact on the safety of the community.” In an email containing his letter, he told the News-Review that he “has been advised that similar sentiments are shared amongst the Kern County DA, Public Defender, Sheriff Youngblood, and our state and federal officials.”