SIERRA VISTA — An intergovernmental agreement between the city and Cochise County for municipal court services that has gone through a handful of iterations was passed unanimously by the City Council — again — on Thursday.
The contract between the two government entities calls for Cochise County to handle all cases generated by Sierra Vista Police, as well as violations of the city’s ordinances. That’s done at the Sierra Vista Justice Court Precinct Five, which also handles cases generated in Hereford and Palominas as well as matters from Huachuca City that don’t fall under that municipality’s city ordinances.
The city has agreed to pay the county $329,307 in fiscal year 2021-22 for the services, which by statute, it must provide to its citizens. The municipality could opt to run its own court, but that could cost close to $2 million, city administrators have said.
The latest change to the 31-year-old pact reverts to a previous arrangement that the justice of the peace — an elected official — will also be the city’s magistrate. That procedure was in place until October 2020 when former Justice of the Peace/Magistrate Pat Call refused to sign the-then court agreement between the two governments. Call has never revealed publicly why he did not sign the contract.
When that occurred, Call was no longer magistrate, but was still justice of the peace. Because of that, former Cochise County Superior Court Judge James Conlogue appointed a magistrate. By statute, the city must have a magistrate, as well as a justice of the peace. Traditionally, one person handled both jobs with the help of a pro tempore, a lawyer who has been assigned by the presiding judge of Cochise County to assist the JP. The Sierra Vista Justice Court is the busiest of the county’s justice courts, also known as courts of limited jurisdiction.
Conlogue appointed attorney Gary Raemaker, who was serving as the pro tempore under Call, as the new magistrate. Conlogue also suggested a new agreement whereby the municipal and justice courts, and the justice of the peace and magistrate, would become separate entities.
That suggestion prompted the Sierra Vista City Council to require that the magistrate be an attorney, which Raemaker is. There is no such requirement for the justice of the peace.
When the separation of the courts was instituted, it meant the county would be responsible for the magistrate’s salary, said Sierra Vista Deputy City Manager Victoria Yarbrough, although the city had not been paying Call as a magistrate.
When Kenneth Curfman was elected justice of the peace for Precinct Five in November Raemaker was still the magistrate.
The Curfman-Raemaker partnership lasted only a few days once Curfman took office in January. Raemaker told the Herald/Review he would not stay on as the magistrate because there were several “unresolved issues” between the city and the county regarding the court agreement. That’s when Cochise County Superior Court Judge Timothy Dickerson, appointed as the county’s presiding judge after Conlogue retired, tapped attorney Ann Lund to become an interim magistrate while court officials figured out what to do next.
According to city documents, “Ultimately, the parties determined the best course of action was to appoint the Justice of the Peace, Precinct V, as the Sierra Vista City Magistrate.”
Curfman will now handle all the cases generated in Sierra Vista and other areas that fall under Precinct Five.
According to the Azcourts.gov website, a justice of the peace’s caseload could include petty offenses and misdemeanors; assault or battery, less serious offenses not committed on a public officer while performing his or her duties; breaches of peace and committing a willful injury to property; misdemeanors and criminal offenses punishable by fines not more than $2,500, imprisonment in county jail not to exceed six months, or both fine and imprisonment; and felonies for the purpose of issuing warrants and conducting preliminary hearings. The latter are then transferred to Cochise County Superior Court.
Magistrates are expected to handle misdemeanor criminal traffic cases such as driving under the influence of alcohol, hit-and-run, and reckless driving in which no serious injuries occur. They hear civil traffic cases, violations of city ordinances and codes, and issue Orders of Protection and injunctions prohibiting harassment. They can also issue search warrants.
The county has similar agreements with other municipalities. Sierra Vista pays the county $276,807 for the tribunal service, the fee based on a formula, Yarbrough said last year.
“It reflects the city’s fair share of court expenses for the civil, civil traffic and misdemeanor cases that SVPD (Sierra Vista Police Department) cites into the Justice Court,” Yarbrough said in November.
The City Council also voted 4-3 to pay Curfman an additional $52,500 for his duties as magistrate, bringing the total they’re now paying for court services to $329,307. Curfman is also paid $105,000 a year as an elected official.