By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
LONGPORT – Margate Administrator Richard Deaney Thursday, Sept. 17 informed the Margate Board of Commissioners that he is working with Longport Administrator A. Scott Porter to develop an agreement for the Longport Municipal Court to continue using the courtroom at Historic Margate City Hall.
Margate first approved a shared services agreement with the borough on Feb. 6 offering court services in Margate on an “emergent” basis. Longport Municipal Court was forced out of its home in Borough Hall in August 2019 when a faulty HVAC system cause mold to form in the courtroom. Although the mold was eventually remediated, new flooring and seating has yet to be installed.
Deaney said the agreement would most likely be a “shared court.”
“We are in discussions with Longport for either renewing that contract or modifying that contract perhaps extending the shared court, not a combined court…” he said.
If the contract is extended, “Longport would still run their court from this building, appoint their own judge, prosecutor and public defender,” Deaney said.
A consolidated court would allow Longport to maintain its revenue, but the expenses of running the court would fall to Margate, which would require Longport to pay a fee for the use of services and staff, he said.
“One way or the other we need to renew our contract by the end of the year,” Deaney told Margate commissioners.
According the NJ Courts Municipal Consolidation Plan, a shared court allows municipalities to share space, staff and supplies, while consolidation would form a joint court, use one court code and one set of bank accounts, and requires the judge be appointed by the governor with advice and consent of the NJ Senate.
The original agreement covered 24 court days with Longport paying $2,000 a month for the use of Margate’s state-of-the-art courtroom and deputy court administrator. Longport provided its own security during court sessions and was able to maintain its share of fines imposed for violations.
Porter said he met with Deaney several weeks ago and a proposal is imminent.
During the Longport Board of Commissioners meeting Wednesday, Sept. 16, resident Peter Isen objected to striking a new agreement with Margate during election season.
He said he believes the new shared services agreement is “already a done deal.”
“Residents of Longport need to know that our courts are being consolidated with Margate and that it is not mandated and maybe this needs to wait for a future administration to come on board,” he said.
“They should wait until the election is over,” Isen said in a telephone interview. “There should be an open forum and they should admit what’s going on instead of beating around the bush.”
Isen said he is concerned that a 32-year employee, Longport Municipal Court Administrator Andrea Brody, could be ousted if the borough consolidates.
“That’s not fair to her,” he said. “We don’t want a consolidated court.”
Isen is a summer resident who lives in Florida nine months of the year and does not vote in Longport. However, he supports a slate of candidates challenging the incumbents in Longport’s non-partisan election on Nov. 3, he said.
Longport Mayor Nicholas Russo said that a directive from the Atlantic Cape May Vicinage of the NJ Courts has recommended municipalities with fewer than 3,000 filings a year consider sharing or consolidating with another municipal court.
When that issue was first discussed, all three Downbeach communities considered having one court system, but Ventnor’s caseload was much higher than in Margate, which also surpasses the 3,000 caseload threshold. Longport’s case load is much lower than the threshold.
Longport also considered a request to join Linwood’s court system, but Linwood subsequently allowed Northfield to rejoin its court.
“We took a pro-active position on the directive,” Russo said in a telephone interview. “If we know this is coming down the road and the trend is for shared services, we’d rather be proactive than reactive.”
He said Margate is a perfect partner because it is literally blocks away.
Commissioner of Public Safety Dan Lawler said although no decisions have been made, any agreement would have to allow the court to “be more efficient and save money for Longport taxpayers.”
“It’s not a done deal and we don’t have all the information to make the decision just yet,” Lawler said. “When the proposal comes in, the commission will vote on it. We probably won’t make any move until after the election anyway.”
Because Margate courts are fully staffed and may not have the need for Longport’s court administrator, Russo said Longport would likely discuss keeping Brody on staff in another capacity.
Both Margate and Longport employ the services of Municipal Court Judge John Rosenberger.
According to the NJ Courts Municipal Consolidation Plan published in 2010, “The steps for establishing a joint court or shared court require strong input from all involved parties, including municipal leaders, the vicinage Assignment Judge, the municipal court judge, and court administrator. The consolidation process requires that a detailed analysis be done to help determine whether the consolidation makes sense for each of the involved municipalities. The Judiciary is prepared to provide input and support to municipal leaders to ensure that any planned court consolidation best serves the needs of our citizens.”
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