NEWS ANALYSIS by BRAD ROLLINS
4:48 p.m. FRIDAY, JUNE 13: The municipal court judge position has been posted on the Texas Municipal League website with at least one significant recalibration since this story was reported.
One of the job requirements is listed as “five (5) years related judicial experience.” On Thursday morning, before the wording was finalized, Human Resources director Linda Spacek said her instructions from the city council were to include a requirement that an applicant be a sitting judge for at least five years.
As the original story noted, there would not be much overlap in a Venn diagram of applicants who 1) already have a job as a judge and 2) are willing to move to San Marcos within three months for a part-time job. Somewhere along the way, the “sitting judge” requirement transformed to “five years related judicial experience,” which is obviously a bit broader.
Any potential judges out there will have to move quickly, however. The last day to submit an application is July 1.
8:37 a.m. FRIDAY, JUNE 13: Against a backdrop of unprecedented population growth, the San Marcos City Council on Wednesday moved toward converting its full-time municipal judge position into a part-time job.
During a special meeting called to conduct a round of periodic job performance evaluations of its top appointees, council members instructed staff to prepare a job posting for a municipal judge who would work an average of just under 20 hours a week, Human Resources director Linda Spacek said. She said she expects the position to be advertised as soon as today through the Texas Municipal League, Keller-based executive search firm Strategic Government Resources and the city’s own website.
The unexpected and abrupt downsizing of the city’s chief judicial office was prompted by a recommendation from Presiding Municipal Judge John P. Burke, who two weeks ago announced his imminent retirement but acknowledged on Thursday that he intends to apply for the new part-time position after sitting out 30 days of “retirement” starting July 1.
Under Texas Municipal Retirement System rules, vested city employees can be re-employed by the city without interruption to their retirement benefits as long as they work less than 1,000 hours a year. Spacek said the judge job will be advertised as “slightly less than half-time, under 1,000 hours a year.”
Asked directly if he has an explicit or implied understanding with the city council that he will be rehired on a part-time basis following his official retirement, the 72-year-old Burke vigorously denied such an arrangement.
“Absolutely none. The requirement is very emphatic that there can be no discussion or pre-arrangement of any type or sort and there has not been one,” the judge said. “Everyone understands that if the position is open, it will be a level playing field for anybody” who applies.
Since November when the municipal court staff moved into office and courtroom facilities in the Hays County Government Center — space the city leases for $6,444 a month under a five-year contract — Burke said he has been able to handle pending cases in batches larger than could even physically fit in his tiny former courtroom on the second floor of the Municipal Building behind City Hall.
About eight months ago, shortly after the move to better-suited facilities, the judge said he and veteran court administrator Susie Garcia began discussing the viability of scheduling court settings three days a week instead of five. Garcia “is convinced that with larger courtrooms to accommodate larger dockets, the need to have a full-time judge is greatly diminished. It can be handled by a part-time judge,” Burke said.
In addition, investment in technology has streamlined case management and customer service, which Burke suggested increases the likelihood that cases are resolved without the need for a court appearance — and, consequently, without the need for a judge. A $4 technology fee added to every fine accessed by his court, raised an average of $35,000 a year between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, according to city budget documents.
In August 2011, the council approved a $140,000 contract with Logan, Utah-based New Dawn Technologies for a system called JustWare. In recent years, the software has allowed the court to implement electronic record-keeping and caseload management which Burke and Garcia said keep cases moving toward disposal. When JustWare is fully implemented this summer, defendants or their attorneys will be able to access information about pending cases electronically, removing more friction from the system.
Moreover — and nearly unbelievably — the number of cases filed in municipal court plummeted by almost 42 percent between fiscal year 2011 and 2013, the same period during which the U.S. Census Bureau estimates San Marcos’ population grew by about 9,100 people, a 20-plus percent increase. That the court is hearing far fewer cases in a city with far more residents is perplexing even to Garcia who concedes that the falling caseloads may not continue indefinitely.
San Marcos Municipal Court caseload, 2008 to 2013
Fiscal year runs Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. SOURCE: San Marcos Municipal Court; City of San Marcos budget documents
“We’ve had significant decreases in case filings. That doesn’t mean that’s what it is always going to look like but that’s what we’ve seen the last three years,” Garcia said. “They’re low [and] I don’t know why.”
However finely-tuned the arguments in support of a part-time municipal judge, the timing of it all will surely look unwholesome to a good many onlookers: Burke recommends that the city council hire a part-time judge and the council swiftly orders up a help-wanted ad for a position that seems tailored to fit Burke. In addition to the reduced hours, the job will require applicants to have been a sitting judge for at least five years; the city charter requires council appointees to reside in San Marcos within 90 days of taking the position. The pool of potential applicants meeting those specifications would seem to be relatively limited, to say the least.
Since the council’s discussions of the municipal court makeover have all been conducted behind closed doors in executive sessions, it’s somewhere near impossible to know what council members are thinking. Asked for an interview on Thursday, Mayor Daniel Guerrero referred questions to Spacek, who said she is not in a position to explain the council’s decision-making process.
“I wasn’t really involved in the decision or the discussion. It was direction to staff from the city council,” Spacek said.
If Burke is hired for the part-time position, he will collect the job’s salary — somewhere between $60,000 to $65,000 — in addition to retirement benefits earned during his 10 years as a Corpus Christi assistant city attorney and his eight years as the San Marcos municipal judge. Burke also served as Dripping Springs municipal court judge between 1989 and 1994, but the municipality was not part of a retirement system at the time.
In San Marcos, city employees pay seven percent of their pre-tax income into a retirement savings account through automatic deductions each payday; their retirement account is guaranteed to earn at least 5 percent interest annually. When the employee retires, the city of San Marcos supplements his contributions with a two-to-one match. The retiree can choose to receive payment in several forms, including a lump sum of up to 75 percent of her retirement account or monthly payments for the rest of her life.
As a three-term Hays County justice of the peace, Burke will also receive retirement income from the the Texas County & District Retirement System. And he has already been drawing what he describes as a small pension from the federal government for his 22 years in the U.S. Army Reserve, from which he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1993.
COVER: Blind Justice ILLUSTRATION by ESTEN HURTLE . MERCURY PHOTO ILLUSTRATION by BRAD ROLLINS.
CLARIFICATION 4:12 p.m. JUNE 13: An earlier version of this story was not clear about the role executive search firm Strategic Government Resources will play in filling the municipal court judge position; the writer was not himself completely certain on the point when the story was published. As of this afternoon, city spokesperson Melissa Millecam says the job posting will be advertised on SGR’s website but that the council does not intend to hire the company to conduct a search. The application process will be handled by the city’s Human Resources department.
Also, the story should have said that Burke has been the San Marcos municipal judge for eight years, not seven; his appointment was announced in May 2006. Lastly, Burke served as the Dripping Springs municipal court judge, not as the Dripping Springs city attorney.