By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
MAYS LANDING – Atlantic County government held a ceremonial dedication of the newly formed Central Municipal Court at the Atlantic County Historic Courthouse on Main Street in Mays Landing Wednesday, May 4.
It is the first regional court system in the State of New Jersey and likely to be replicated in other districts when the success of the court becomes evident.
The consolidated municipal court, which currently has nine participating municipalities, is the brainchild of Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, who was unable to attend the dedication ceremony held in Courtroom 1.
County Counsel James F. Ferguson explained how the court was created and credited Levinson with his leadership in finding a way to help municipalities save money on the cost of running their local courts, while providing much-needed point-of-service social programs to those who stand before a judge.
“This will be his greatest, most enduring accomplishment,” Ferguson said.
Atlantic County Sheriff’s Officers will provide security for the court.
Participating municipalities include Egg Harbor, Galloway, Hamilton and Weymouth townships, Estell Manor, Linwood, Northfield, and Ventnor City. The Borough of Longport, which currently holds court under a shared services agreement with Margate, is considering now if it will join the system in January 2023.
Rev. John Ash of the Presbyterian Church of Mays Landing across the street from the historic courthouse offered the invocation and benediction. County Commission Chairwoman Maureen Kern led the flag salute and Atlantic/Cape May County Vicinage Trial Court Administrator Howard H. Berchtold Jr. and his wife Donna, a retired Hamilton Township music teacher, sang the national anthem.
“We always talked about it and had a lot of discussion about the need to do shared services,” State Sen. Vince Polistina said. “There was a lot of talk and not a whole lot of action, so kudos to Denny and all the people who made this day possible for the county to save money. We need to get people the care they need and deserve and this is one of the things that will allow us to do that.”
As the kinks are worked out, more towns will want to join the system, he said.
He noted that he is advocating that opioid settlement funds be used to help those suffering from addiction get the help they need to prevent them from becoming repeat offenders.
Numerous county and court officials spoke of the historic nature of the consolidated court system, which was made possible through legislative amendments spearheaded in both chambers by former State Senate President Steve Sweeney.
Sweeney noted that change is difficult, but Levinson provided the vision and leadership to get nine municipalities to sign onto the central court system.
“Every opportunity you have to make it more affordable, you should jump at it. Then, to add the social services not available in municipal court is critically important,” he said.
Sweeney said Levinson’s persistence paid off.
“I always say put the people first and that’s what you are doing here. I’m thrilled I had a part in it, but this was Denny’s from start to finish. It’s nice to see it happen.”
Sweeney said the central court would likely be replicated around the state.
“You should be very proud to be the first,” he said.
Steven Somogyi, assistant director of Municipal Court Services, said municipal courts that are the “base of justice” in New Jersey hear more than 6 million cases a year in small and large municipalities.
“The Atlantic County Central Municipal Court, if projections hold true, will be the second largest court in the state behind Camden,” he said. “It emphasizes our ability to band together and use our resources to create efficiencies that serve the public.”
He said the state Administrative Office of the Courts had to make significant policy and technology changes to make the transition happen.
Newly appointed Assignment Judge Michael J. Blee noted the construction phase is complete, and now it is time to fulfill the goals of the Central Court with “fairness, independence and efficiency.” He urged the judges to treat those who come before them with “patience, civility, integrity and compassion” in order to provide “fair and just decisions.”
He quoted President Harry Truman, “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”
Chief Judge Tim Maguire, who prior to his appointment served as solicitor in Ventnor, thanked the judges, clerks and staffers who made the transition happen.
He recognized municipal leaders who put their faith in the system.
“I want to assure you that you will be increasingly pleased with the decision you made to join this court,” he said. “This court has built in efficiencies and economies of scale that will continue to grow and you will be ever more pleased with that decision.”
The social services provided through JFS will extend a hand to help people improve their lives.
“We seek to do on an institutional level what all of us instinctively know is right on an individual and personal level,” Maguire said. “When you can, help those in need, whether it be drug use, homelessness, mental health counseling, or providing a safe environment for victims of domestic violence.”
Retired Superior Court Judge Mark Sandson said the social programs offered at the court would help people get the care they need and deserve and change their lives. JFS personnel will be present during court sessions to refer defendants to the programs they need to avoid becoming repeat offenders.
Sandson and Berchtold presided over the unveiling of three bronze plaques that will be installed outside three refurbished courtrooms. Each of the plaques honors a pioneer in Atlantic County’s judiciary: Julio L. Mendez, a Cuban immigrant who retired as the first Latino assignment judge in Atlantic County; Valerie H. Armstrong, the first female assignment judge in the vicinage who retired in 2011; and posthumously honored, Herbert S. Jacobs, the first African-American state judge and the youngest judge to ever be appointed in New Jersey.
Tours of Courtrooms 2 and 3 were conducted after the ceremony, revealing the $3.7 million renovation of the historic brick structure in the county seat, $2 million of it coming from the American Rescue Plan. The effort to form the consolidated court was funded in part with a $150,000 LEAP (Local Efficiency Achievement Program) challenge grant.
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