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City, state agree on Watertown City Court courtroom

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WATERTOWN — It took less than an hour Tuesday night for the city and representatives of the Fifth Judicial District to hash out a final plan to create a second courtroom in City Hall.

They agreed to make a smaller courtroom to be used only for civil cases, and to upgrade security so that all visitors to City Hall must go through a metal detector. The plan’s new version cuts the cost of adding a second courtroom from $1.5 million to less than $900,000. The second courtroom accommodates the promotion of Catherine J. Palermo to full-time judge.

Both city and Fifth District Judicial officials and the two Watertown City Court judges seemed satisfied with the plan. “I think it’s a good compromise,” Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham said. “I appreciate everyone working together.”

Judge James C. Tormey, the Fifth Judicial District’s administrative judge, who oversees City Court, will send the plan to state court officials in New York City for final approval. “It was a pleasure to work with everybody,” said the judge, who previously criticized the city for objecting to the second courtroom due to its cost.

City officials agreed that the Sterling Street doors on the side of City Hall no longer will be used as a primary entrance. Instead, the Washington Street doors will become the building’s main entrance. State court officers will staff a magnetometer station through which all visitors to City Hall must pass. The Sterling Street doors will be locked and used only for disabled visitors.

To accommodate court officer work shifts, City Hall’s hours will likely change from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

To persuade city officials to make the security improvements, Chief Sean G. Egan, the head of security for the Fifth Judicial District, showed council members an array of weapons that visitors have tried to sneak into Onondaga County jail.

He brought a display board with a few dozen weapons, including a cane that contained a sword, a tube of lipstick that had a small knife inside and a flashlight with a stun gun.

“We get boxes, upon boxes, upon boxes of this stuff,” he said.

For about 20 years, the state has implemented tight court security measures to protect judges, the public, court officials and others.

Planned security improvements in City Hall will cost about $458,000, while the new courtroom is projected at about $400,000.

Saying that improving security “is a win-win for everybody,” City Manager Sharon A. Addison asked about security after 4:30 p.m., such as for evening City Council meetings. Judge Tormey replied that the state could offer the security screening, but that the city would have to pay for it.

It was unclear on Tuesday night when construction would start on the additional courtroom and other changes.

The 679- square-foot courtroom will be created by relocating some city offices that currently occupy the first floor.

Under state law, the city must provide a second courtroom for Judge Palermo to be a full-time judge, according to court administration officials. That would allow the two judges to hear cases simultaneously.

The other full-time city judge is Eugene R. Renzi.

While the state pays the salaries of judges and court staff, the city would have to pay for the renovations.

Since the issue came up this winter, the city and the court administration have traded schematics on how a second courtroom could be added.

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