HAMMOND — The Hammond City Council on Monday approved an ordinance that would phase out the City Court over the next two years, despite some vociferous objections by some council members, attorneys and a few members of the public.
"I'm disappointed," said recently appointed Hammond City Court Judge Amy Jorgensen following the council vote.
Under the proposed ordinance, most of the new filings normally made with the City Court would be made instead in Lake Superior Court in the coming year. The exemption would be ordinance violations, which Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. is proposing be heard by a separate Ordinance Court in the city.
Under the ordinance sponsored by Dave Woerpel, D-5th, "the Hammond City Court will cease to exist on Dec. 31, 2018."
Woerpel and McDermott said their reason for eliminating the court had to do with saving perhaps $1.5 million a year in the city budget. The said the savings are needed in the wake of tax caps that could cost the city $3.5 million to $5.5 million in annual property tax revenue in 2020.
Some council members and others, however, have suggested the reason behind the movement stemmed from Jorgensen's appointment by then Gov. Mike Pence. Both McDermott and Woerpel had criticized the appointment of Jorgensen, a former chairwoman of the St. John Republican Party, who does not live in the city.
One of the people who was passed over in favor of Jorgensen, court referee Nathan Foster, argued for a delay in making a decision. He said he shared Jorgensen and attorney Randy Godshalk's belief the cost of the court to the city could be trimmed.
Just as in a prior hearing there were arguments the cost of the city jail should not be included in the calculations of the City Court costs. People noted that other cities, such as Gary, operated a City Court without a jail.
"We don't need a jail," Godshalk said.
Jorgensen asked that the council give her a year to get the court to a cost neutral basis or extremely close to it.
"If we can't then we can spend the next two years winding down the court," she said.
Councilman Bob Markovich, D-at large, urged that more time be given to study the issue and cited a long list of issues that could arise with the closing of the court, including increased overtime for police and others who would have to travel to Crown Point to have cases heard in Lake Superior Court, although some cases would be heard at the branch on Russell Street.
There was also complaints that it would be difficult for some Hammond residents to make the trip to Crown Point. There is also the potential loss of revenue if some attorneys decide to relocate as the result of the move. Attorney Robert Sorge said there was no reason for him to keep his office in Hammond if the City Court were to close.
The ordinance passed 6-3 with Markovich, Anthony Higgs and Pete Torres voting against.
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