Commissioners field trip to Haywood justice center
Sitting in the judge’s seat, Jackson County Commissioners Chairman Jack Debnam took a look around. He absorbed the courtroom, glanced down at Commissioner Doug Cody on the witness stand and County Manager Chuck Wooten in the jury box.
“I kinda like it up here,” said Debnam.
“Don’t get used to that,” joked Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts.
The judge finished up describing the particulars of the courtroom, before continuing with his guided tour of the Haywood County Justice Center. He proudly showed the Jackson officials the relatively new center’s various bells and whistles and efficiencies — what Cody would later refer to as “an impressive facility.”
The tour had begun when the Jackson crew’s fieldtrip arrived via bus and was shown into the building.
“There’s only one entrance, everybody has to come in one entrance,” Letts told the group as they progressed through a metal detector. “This is the newer design, the newer approach.”
The Jackson commissioners were interested in getting a look around Haywood’s justice center because they’re considering getting one themselves. According to a recent needs assessment — conducted by Heery International, the same company that built the Haywood justice center — Jackson’s current facility is about 35,000 square feet too small, not secure enough and fails to meet modern accessibility standards.
Judge Letts was a natural to lead the justice center tour for the Jackson group. As a Superior Court judge, he operates out of both counties and is familiar with each facility.
“He’s the one that kind of encouraged the commissioners over here to do the needs assessment,” Wooten explained.
Letts first showed the Jackson officials a first floor security room. They filed into the small, dimly lit room with a bank of video monitors displaying scenes from throughout the building.
“Zoom in,” Letts instructed a guard. “You can almost read the paper on the counsel table.”
The commissioners watched and listened as the building’s security system was explained. The guard stationed in the security room explained various features and toggled camera angles for varying views.
“There’s panic buttons everywhere in the building, too,” the guard said.
Next, the fieldtrip was shown the clerk of court’s facilities. The clerk’s courtroom is located conveniently near her offices. It was described to the tour group as “a very important room,” “a great asset” and a room that is used “almost every day for something.”
“You have a good design, a good flow,” Letts said. “All of her staff is there, all of her files are there.”
The judge next showed off the magistrate’s courtroom. He explained how jury pools could be quarantined in various spaces. He pointed out safety measures and technological features.
“This whole courtroom is wired,” Letts said as he demonstrated how a video system in one courtroom functioned.
The judge also showed the visitors from Jackson the building’s administrative accommodations. Letts, himself, enjoys a wall full of window with an overlook of Waynesville.
“Can I check that out?” Wooten asked.
“Sure,” the judge said. “I will confess to having the best view in the courthouse.”
After arriving back in Jackson County, Wooten noted that the Haywood facility was a bit more than his commissioners would be looking to get into.
“We could take our justice center and sit it inside their justice center,” he would tell his commissioners later.
But now, the Jackson commissioners have something to chew on, something to visualize. Wooten is estimating it will take about a year to consider what features to incorporate into the new justice center and to design the facility. Somewhere in that process a price will be settled upon — Wooten’s ballparking the project at a minimum of $15 million — and commissioners will then have to decide if Jackson County is really getting a new justice center.
“Somebody rolls out a number,” Wooten said, “the commissioners have to say, ‘Alright, are we going to do this?’”
Jackson looking to Haywood’s ‘Taj Mahal’
Jackson County commissioners have been pointed toward the Haywood County Justice Center as a model of excellence, but when the project was undertaken a decade ago, it was a lightening rod for public criticism.
Dubbed the “Taj Mahal of Justice,” the $18 million Haywood justice center was criticized for both its scale and scope.
Heery, the same consultant now being used by Jackson, was accused of catering too heavily on what the legal community said they wanted, rather than what was truly needed. County commissioners in office at the time faced a deep bench of challengers who campaigned in part on the justice center being excessive. Every incumbent in office lost their seat.
Haywood’s three-story justice center has five courtrooms and two smaller hearing rooms. Heery’s original design even called for a fourth floor but that was scrapped.
According to the 2013 court calendar, the five main courtrooms in Haywood were never all in use simultaneously, and it was rare to have four in use at once. Most of the time, only two or three are in use.
Heery was hired by Jackson County to conduct a space assessment for the justice center there late last year for a $34,000 fee.
Jackson County has two mid-sized courtrooms. But on the rare occasion, three courtrooms have been needed the same day, pressing the county commissioners’ meeting room down the hall into service as a venue for legal proceedings. Other shortcomings in Jackson’s courthouse include inadequate metal detectors when entering the building, not enough space for record storage, and cramped quarters for court-support roles, such as the clerk of court, register of deeds and district attorney.
Finding space could mean a physical expansion of the justice center, creative remodeling or off-loading county departments that share the justice center to a new location to free up room for the growing court system.
— Becky Johnson, reporter