published Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Panel discusses, doesn't settle on-call magistrates issue

by Dan Whisenhunt
Audio clip

Jim Coppinger and Larry Ables

Hamilton County Chief Judicial Commissioner Larry Ables thought he had settled the question of whether there should be on-call magistrates to handle bond hearings.

But some members of the Hamilton County Commission think the issue is far from resolved. Some commissioners are concerned with the cost and size of the program.

On Wednesday, during a meeting of the commission's Security and Corrections Committee, Mr. Ables defended his request for the commission to appoint two on-call magistrates.

Mr. Ables offered figures showing that the number of hours on-call magistrates are used in the 2009-10 fiscal year is well below the amount approved by the commission.

The committee, however, made no decision. Chairman Larry Henry said it would take up the issue at its next meeting on April 29.

Mr. Ables told members of the Security and Corrections Committee that, of 67 12-hour shifts for on-call magistrates approved by the commission, only 20 shifts have been used. According to Mr. Ables' figures, that's a decrease from 2007, when 208 shifts were approved for on-call magistrates and the commission paid for 236.

County financial records also show that the requested magistrate budget for fiscal year 2009-10 was the same as for 2008-09: $262,570.

In 2007, the commission added a fourth full-time magistrate and Commissioner Jim Coppinger said the commission had expected that increasing the number of magistrates would cover all necessary shifts.

He asked Mr. Ables if all magistrates are exempt, meaning they are not paid overtime, and Mr. Ables said they were.

"So for the sake of discussion, can we agree that they're exempt employees?" Mr. Coppinger said.

"I said, 'yes' to that. Yes," Mr. Ables said. "Yes, I agree with you."

Mr. Coppinger told Mr. Ables he was being confrontational and asked him to calm down.

At the end of the meeting, Commissioner Curtis Adams proposed a compromise, suggesting that Mr. Ables get approval from Mr. Henry in a case-by-case basis when he needed an on-call magistrate.

Mr. Henry said the issue needs more discussion and didn't know if the committee favored Mr. Adams' proposed solution.

Continue reading by following these links to related stories:

Article: Commission debates magistrate plan

Article: Lasley out; Lloyd chosen as magistrate

Article: County commissioners decline to extend magistrate contracts

about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

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