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Conflict of interest concerns prompt City Council to weigh municipal court options

The Casper City Council wants more information before deciding whether to hire full-time judges at the municipal court — a move spurred on by conflict of interest concerns.

City Council members on Tuesday asked City Manager Carter Napier to bring back more details about the court including:

  • the total cost of hiring two full-time judges and a part-timer instead of the three part-time judges and a substitute the court currently employs;
  • whether a change to the judges’ employment status would impact alcohol court;
  • what criteria judges use to recuse themselves from cases;
  • how the court might be restructured to allow judges more oversight of court employees;
  • and how much revenue the court collects.

Napier, who presented preliminary information on the court after researching a potential change to full-time judges with court manager Fleur Tremel, did not specify when he would return with the requested information.

The meeting comes after some prominent attorneys have said the existing system creates the appearance of a conflict of interest. That’s because municipal judges are permitted to work as local attorneys, meaning they could represent the city as a judge and then cross-examine a city police officer in another court.

District Attorney Michael Blonigen and local criminal-defense lawyer Ian Sandefer both wrote letters in November to the city manager and the City Council expressing concern with the current system.

“Especially if a private criminal practice is retained,” Blonigen wrote in his Nov. 20 letter. “It creates an impression that outcomes may be based on considerations other than the law and facts.”

Tuesday evening, Dallas Laird was the only City Council member who came down strongly on the issue, calling for the court to hire up to two full-time judges. He also called for the Casper Police Department to send all misdemeanor charges to the city’s court, which would presumably increase revenue generated by the city.

Napier’s presentation included a comparison to Cheyenne’s system, which currently employs a full-time judge, a part-time judge and another part-timer who handles juvenile matters. The juvenile judge is not a lawyer and Wyoming state law does not require municipal judges to have legal training.

Cheyenne pays its judges just under $158,000, Napier said, while Casper spends about $161,000 on its judges. Cheyenne is currently looking to hire a second full-time judge, which would increase the capital city’s cost to $273,000.

If the city changed its municipal court system but not its budget, it could pay a full-time judge $73,000 annually, provide $32,000 for his or her benefits, and pay a part-time judge at roughly the same rate they currently earn, Napier said. Napier noted that Casper’s benefits package would be significantly more expensive than Cheyenne’s, deflating the baseline salary for a full-time judge.

Napier said a full-time judge would more effectively avoid conflicts of interest by not practicing law privately. However, such a system could lead to other problems. The city manager cited the risk of burnout by having a judge who is effectively on call year-round.

“Having one judge, in my estimation, doesn’t work,” Napier said.

The city manager also said that alcohol court might not function effectively within the full-time model.

Laird expressed skepticism about the risk of burnout to a full-time judge, citing the 20-hour workweek in the current system. He also said the city should weigh the amount of revenue brought in by the court when considering limiting judges’ salaries to $160,000 total.

“I think to strap it all to that budget is not fair to our citizens,” Laird said.

Laird said he thinks the court brings in upwards of a million dollars a year. He did not offer details about how he calculated that number.

If the police department were to file all misdemeanors in municipal court, the increased caseload would necessitate two full-time judges, Laird said.

Casper Municipal Court Judge Rob Hand spoke briefly, saying that judges are on-call around the clock to handle warrants. He said doing so year-round would greatly increase the risk of burnout. Hand also said he could not recall the last time he was asked to recuse himself, but if he were asked to do so, he would.

Councilman Shawn Johnson said he did not come down strongly on either side of the issue, but that he wanted to ensure citizens’ rights and the constitution are protected.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Gary Hawkinson takes a break while shoveling his neighbor's driveway after a brief snow shower Wednesday afternoon in Casper. "I'm getting too old for this," Hawkinson said.

Casper City Council's agenda planning sessions now open to public

Anyone interested in city politics will soon be able to watch how Casper City Council meetings are planned. While the agendas have historically been set in private between the city manager, mayor and vice mayor, they will now be tacked onto the end of the Council’s work sessions.

“There is a lot going on and being discussed there that never comes to the rest of us,” said Councilman Chris Walsh during Tuesday’s work session.

“It blindsides us, and it’s human reaction to get annoyed at it,” he added.

Although the councilman said he does not believe there is any intention to leave others out of the loop, Walsh said some information inevitably ends up being overlooked.

Walsh then suggested that the agenda could be planned out at the end of the Council’s work sessions so all members could be involved with the process.

Councilman Dallas Laird quickly voiced support for the idea.

“I don’t think any councilman should have the opportunity to be more informed than other councilmen,” he explained.

Adding that he had dropped by one of these planning sessions, Laird said he also had concerns that they were not open to the press and public.

Moving the meetings will be a “big change,” said Vice Mayor Charlie Powell. There is a long-standing tradition of the Council’s mayor and vice mayor meeting with the city manager to set the agenda.

However, Powell and Mayor Ray Pacheco said they were open to testing out the idea.

City Manager Carter Napier said Wednesday that is common practice throughout Wyoming for city council leaders to meet with the city manager to plan out the next meeting’s agenda because it tends to be the most time-efficient method.

“Sometimes it is difficult to get nine people to settle on a direction,” he said.

But if it’s important to the Council to include everyone, then Napier said he is fully on board.

Powell was concerned that planning the agenda after a three-to four-hour work session could extend the meeting too late. But he then reiterated there was no harm in trying.

“We’ll see how it works ... I’m always willing to try things that other Council members suggest,” he said.

Lawmakers see boost for immigration deal after Trump remarks

WASHINGTON — Backed by the White House, Democratic and Republican lawmakers dug into a politically fraught search for compromise on immigration Wednesday, seeking to take advantage of a window of opportunity opened by President Donald Trump. They’re under pressure to find a breakthrough before a deadline next week that could lead to a government shutdown neither side wants.

Democrats want urgent action to stave off deportation of some 800,000 immigrants currently protected by an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Trump still wants his border wall, though he’s toned down what that means. Conservatives are watching with a wary eye, fearing he will strike a soft compromise that could infuriate their — and his — political base heading into this year’s elections.

The No. 2 lawmakers of each of Capitol Hill’s quadrants of power — Republicans and Democrats in both House and Senate — touched gloves Wednesday afternoon, deputized for action at what appears to be a moment of genuine opportunity to break Washington gridlock.

“Everybody wants to find a deal there, myself included,” said Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the stoutly conservative House Freedom Caucus. “It better be good, because that particular issue is really one of the issues that got this president elected. He can’t afford to make a mistake.”

The Democrats talk most about DACA, the program protecting immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and are now here illegally. Many have only known America as their home and are viewed sympathetically in opinion polls and among most lawmakers.

Meanwhile, Republicans are heartened by an agreement to discuss other issues, such as border security and Trump’s long-promised wall, as well as limiting a preferential “chain migration” system that gives advantages to the relatives of legal immigrants.

Trump no longer talks about the “big, beautiful wall” spanning the length of the U.S.-Mexico border, as he did in the election campaign, but he is demanding some elements of it as part of any agreement.

“We need the wall for security, we need the wall for safety, we need the wall for stopping the drugs from pouring in,” Trump said Wednesday. “Any solution has to include the wall because without the wall, it all doesn’t work.”

Inside the Capitol among the GOP rank and file, most seem to be either supportive of the negotiations or taking a wait and see approach. Everyone has long known that bipartisan talks on both immigration and increasing the crunching spending limits on both the Pentagon and domestic agencies were inevitable. It’s no secret that the results of the bipartisan, leadership-driven negotiations are likely to produce results that anger the hard right, but less strident Republicans seem to be comfortable, at least so far.

“I think most like where it’s going,” said freshman Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska. who represents a competitive district anchored by Omaha and is sympathetic to DACA immigrants. “There’s some exceptions but there’s a general consensus that that is what we need to be doing. And I think that this is an area that’s tailor-made for a bipartisan solution. We both want some things here.”

Immigration is just one side of the equation. Also at stake is a deal on spending that would uncork tens of billions of dollars in higher Pentagon spending this year alone, along with money sought by Democrats for domestic programs. Democratic votes are needed to advance such legislation, but top Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York won’t agree to a budget deal unless DACA is dealt with first.

Meanwhile, a group of House Republicans, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte of Virginia, unveiled their own immigration bill Wednesday, a measure that embraces conservative goals but would seem to have little chance of ultimate passage. It would reduce legal immigration levels by 25 percent, block federal grants to “sanctuary cities” that don’t cooperate with federal authorities on immigration issues and restrict the number of relatives that immigrants already in the U.S. can bring here.

In a related matter, immigration agents descended on about 100 7-Eleven stores in 17 states and the District of Columbia on Wednesday, a rolling operation that officials called the largest immigration action against an employer under Trump’s presidency.

The employment audits and interviews with store workers could lead to criminal charges or fines. And they appeared to open a new front in Trump’s expansion of immigration enforcement, which has already brought a 40 percent increase in deportation arrests and pledges to spend billions of dollars on a border wall with Mexico.

Derek Benner, acting head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, said the audits were “the first of many” and “a harbinger of what’s to come” for employers.

After the inspections, officials plan to look at whether the cases warrant administrative action or criminal investigations, Benner told The Associated Press.

7-Eleven Stores Inc., based in Irving, Texas, said in a statement that the owners of its franchises are responsible for hiring and verifying work eligibility.

File, Star-Tribune  

Becky Collier, the senior avian educator at the Teton Raptor Center, fills up a kiddie pool for River, a bald eagle, on April 29, 2016 outside of the center. The raptor center would like to expand, a decision causing controversy in Teton County.