Opening statements

Ceremony celebrates county’s new courthouse construction

Butte County Judge Steven Howell addresses the audience at a groundbreaking for a new courthouse in Chico as Judge Stephen Benson looks on.

Butte County Judge Steven Howell addresses the audience at a groundbreaking for a new courthouse in Chico as Judge Stephen Benson looks on.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

On a warm, blustery Friday afternoon (May 3) in a southeast Chico field, about 200 nattily dressed people—mostly county and municipal elected and appointed officials—gathered for the ceremonial groundbreaking of the new North Butte County Courthouse.

With an anticipated December 2014 completion, the five-courtroom, two-story, 67,433-square-foot facility off of Bruce Road in the Meriam Park subdivision carries a $65 million price tag that will be covered by the state through a bill passed in 2008 for court construction projects to be funded by increased court fees. Of 40 projects statewide looking to cash in on the opportunity, only a handful, including Butte’s, have survived.

Standing on a small stage at the end of a long runway in the middle of a dirt field, presiding Butte County Superior Court Judge Stephen Benson addressed the crowd, which was seated under a large canvas tarp that occasionally shuddered in the wind.

“They have designed this courthouse to be open and accessible, for that is really what the California judicial branch of government is about,” Benson said after a pledge of allegiance and the a cappella version of the National Anthem by the Pleasant Valley High School Valkyries singers.

The new facility will replace the current Chico Courthouse on Oleander Avenue across from Chico Junior High School. Built in 1966, it has only two courtrooms. A one-courtroom courthouse in Paradise was constructed in 1961, but proceedings there were suspended a few years ago, with all cases being transferred to Chico. According to a state report written before it closed, both buildings “have significant security problems and severe accessibility deficiencies, are very overcrowded, have many physical problems, and prevent the court from operating safe and efficient court facilities.”

“This courthouse will forever have a strong connection to our community,” Benson said. “We welcome today all of our public officials and elected officers of our local government, both Butte County as well as municipal Chico and Paradise, Gridley and Oroville. The list is so long that we would melt into the asphalt if I were to read each name.

“But I do need to welcome the pink flamingo brought by our district attorney, Mike Ramsey,” he said, nodding to the pink lawn ornament stuck in the ground next to the stage. “He’ll have to tell you what that is about.”

Ramsey later explained that, when recently retired Judge Steven Howell took the bench in 1987, he presided in a double-wide construction trailer in Oroville set up as a “temporary” court that lasted about eight years. It became known, Ramsey said, as “Steve’s trailer court.”

“It was a well-known joke back then that Judge Howell had in his chambers a pink flamingo like the ones popular in Florida trailer courts,” Ramsey said.

Benson went on to read a message from Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, the state’s chief justice, who pointed out that such projects are important for the state’s justice system and to remind the public how they are paid for.

“In these tight fiscal times it’s important to remember that these projects are funded not with scarce tax dollars,” the message said, “but through specially designated court fees.”

Benson then introduced Judge Steven Jahr, the chief administrative officer of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Jahr extended congratulations to all those involved for the local project, which he said will play a key role in providing citizen access to the state’s justice system.

“The Administrative Office of the Courts, for which I am now responsible, constructs all new courthouses in California and is responsible for the maintenance and management of all the existing courthouses—some 500 by last count—in the state.”

Transfer of responsibility for maintaining and managing court facilities from the counties to the state began in 2004.

Though the new courthouse design calls for holding cells, Ramsey said holding criminal cases in Chico rather than in Oroville would be “terribly inefficient.”

“We have the District Attorney’s Office here and the jail,” he said. “Transportation to Chico [of those in custody] would mean the loss of an hour each day.”

He said the Administrative Office of the Courts required the holding cells in the design of the new courthouse for family law cases in which a family member may be incarcerated. Only family law and civil cases should be tried in Chico, Ramsey said. The criminal cases should remain in the Oroville court.

The project will be built by Otto Construction, a Sacramento-based company that also built a number of buildings for Chico State a few years back. And just like those buildings, which were awarded LEED certification for their environmentally friendly construction and energy efficiency, the new courthouse will be built with the aim of gaining a silver certificate.

Ironically, in the case of the Chico State project, 3,200 tons of debris from the structures cleared to make way for the new buildings ended up in and along the Sacramento River. In that case, Ramsey’s office prosecuted Thomas Carpenter, the contractor hired to demolish the buildings and dispose of the debris.