Security, privacy measures improved
For the several weeks now, Okanogan County has been holding Superior Court trials in a new, spacious facility that provides much-needed security for witnesses and defendants and increased public-health protections by allowing jurors and others to spread out in the courtroom.
The county purchased the building in Okanogan in October 2021 from the U.S. Forest Service for $1.58 million. The cost was covered entirely by funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, which can be used for COVID-related expenses, according to Okanogan County Auditor Cari Hall.
While the county has long needed a larger courtroom and private office space and meeting rooms for attorneys, defendants and witnesses, the shortcomings of the old courtroom became critical during the pandemic, said Superior Court Administrator Dennis Rabidou, who gave a tour of the remodeled facility at the end of March.
The former Superior Court courtroom in the historic county courthouse seats about 50 people and has a compact jury box, which made distancing to protect people’s health impossible, Rabidou said.
For part of the pandemic, the county made do with a temporary arrangement at the Agriplex, where they set up widely spaced chairs during questioning of jury panels and had ample spacing for judges, court staff and trial participants. The arrangement at the Agriplex allowed the county to safely conduct trials when many other counties had to simply postpone them, but it wasn’t a long-term solution because the building is used regularly for other purposes, Rabidou said.
The new courtroom seats about 100 people, more than twice the average jury pool, said former Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Chris Culp, who joined the tour just before his retirement at the end of March. “We all admire the old courthouse, but it had been difficult, shuffling courtrooms and judges,” Culp said.
Rabidou had been looking for a long-term solution for Superior Court for years when a staff member spotted the “for sale” sign at the Forest Service building on the way to the landfill. Rabidou headed over that weekend to check it out.
Starting last winter, the county commissioners evaluated the feasibility of the building and potential funding sources. The county has a contract with an architect to explore options for property development. He is currently conducting interviews with county staff to understand needs for space and other requirements, Okanogan County Commissioner Chris Branch said.
Since the county acquired the building last fall, Rabidou has overseen basic renovations that will make the space highly functional for the next several years. Much of the furniture and equipment had already been acquired for the temporary set-up at the Agriplex.
The new courthouse facility has up-to-date security, including a screening and metal-detection system similar to that used for luggage at airports.
Some features — like the screening equipment and ways to separate individuals involved in a trial — are mandatory for security. There are also rooms that provide privacy for child-custody cases and for witnesses, as well as judges’ chambers, offices for prosecutors, and rooms where lawyers can meet privately with clients — all amenities that were lacking at the old building.
Hanging microphones throughout the large space will streamline the empaneling of jurors, and mean that Rabidou and other court staff will no longer have to run around the room with microphones during the questioning of potential jurors. Other amenities will make trials more comfortable for jurors, such as a separate snack and break room.
Considerable choreography was necessary to make the cramped quarters at the old courthouse meet security requirements. Staff had to manage the use of rooms and hallways so witnesses, defendants and victims wouldn’t see each other, Culp said.
District Court will remain in the old courthouse, but will be able to use the former Superior Court room if they need additional space. The county clerk will ultimately move to the new building. Other departments will stay in the historic building.
“It will be a 21st-century courtroom,” Culp said. “It’s pretty exciting. This is a tribute to Dennis Rabidou. It would not have happened without him.”
“It’s all about being able to keep trials going and justice moving,” Rabidou said.
There are two existing tenants in the new building — a division of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife used for wildfire training, and Okanogan County Childhood Development Association, which operates an early-childhood program. Both will be staying in the building for now, but will need to move within a couple of years, Okanogan County Commissioner Chris Branch said.
The county is currently working on a strategic plan for the building and site. Among the possibilities under consideration are a new juvenile facility, but any plans for that are far in the future. A juvenile facility would require a conditional-use permit from the city of Okanogan, Branch said.
The county has issued a $9.51 million bond that will go toward future renovations to the building. It will also pay for upgrades to a Sheriff’s Office building that will be used for storage and a new morgue, Okanogan County Treasurer Leah Mc Cormack said.
The county is also working on permitting for two new Public Works shops, one on the Twisp-Winthrop East County Road, and the other in Tonasket. The shops would provide adequate storage for snowplows, some of which now have to be parked outside. That delays response time, sometimes for hours, because the plows and sanders need to be thawed and loaded, Okanogan County Road Maintenance Engineer Gary George said. The county hopes to put the projects out for bid by early May, he said.
The main source of funding for those buildings is from the county’s capital projects fund, Mc Cormack said.