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Pinellas County considers moving family court out of downtowns and into mid-county complex

CLEARWATER — Top county officials have proposed moving all family law courts to mid Pinellas County to make justice more efficient.

But lawyers and leaders in Clearwater, like counterparts in St. Petersburg, predict it will deal an unfair blow to clients and to the county's two biggest downtowns.

"It's not simply a question of being inconvenienced. Family law cases are different," attorney Thomas Donnelly said.

County Administrator Bob LaSala and Chief Circuit Judge Thomas McGrady would shift family law courts now located in downtown Clearwater and downtown St. Petersburg to the county Criminal Justice Center off 49th Street N near Largo.

More than 70 court staffers would move to the complex. Then the county could sell the historic 501 Building in St. Petersburg.

It's part of a $225 million overhaul of judicial and jail sites. The family law shifts would dovetail with Florida Supreme Court efforts to centralize those courts, McGrady said.

"We don't have economy of scale, and we have situations where we have more judges than we really can afford in that situation," McGrady said of the downtown Clearwater and St. Petersburg offices.

Not so, say some lawyers and city officials. The idea stirred Clerk of Circuit Court Ken Burke to take the unusual step of ordering an internal audit that pointed out holes in the plans. Legal bar organizations in both cities also have begun discussing effects.

The county has moved out of several properties in Clearwater in recent years. The idea of pulling out more people — family law attorneys and clients who do business downtown — triggered more worries. It's another case of "moving more county offices out of the county seat," Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said.

"It's definitely going to impact us," he said.

Some lawyers and other officials said putting family law in a building for criminal cases will hurt clients. Criminal cases often take place in large courtrooms in a formal atmosphere; family law cases often proceed in smaller chambers where the setting is less intimidating.

Donnelly and St. Petersburg lawyer Peter Meros also complained of the risk of delays because of bottlenecking cases and the potential inconveniences to clients if family court pulls out of the two largest cities.

Several years ago, county consultants studying how to expand the courts backed moving family law and traffic court to one location. But they didn't review the consolidation proposal, though chief assistant county administrator Mark Woodard said Wednesday a review of the efficiencies of shifting family law will be done.

Attorneys also suggest the family law shifts are driven more by LaSala's interest in selling the 501 Building. Estimates project a $5 million to $8 million sales price.

"The way I understand it is they want to sell 501 for the economy of it," McGrady acknowledged. "The result is what do we do with the people who are working inside the 501 Building."

LaSala and McGrady discount some of the concerns about a proposal they say is still open to change. Alternatives to moving family court already are being considered.

County commissioners want to curb operating costs, and that has resulted in Pinellas shuttering government buildings. But critics haven't acknowledged the county's flexibility to change what is still a work in progress, LaSala said.

If family court moved to the Criminal Justice Center, the second floor would be renovated to accommodate family law hearings. A new garage also would be built.

People would have to travel differently, including some lawyers who chose offices near existing court buildings. But county officials said threats of economic harm are exaggerated, since no study has been done.

History may be on their side. Almost 35 years ago, the county took steps to move criminal cases to the 49th Street area. The cities complained of havoc then, too.

Pinellas County considers moving family court out of downtowns and into mid-county complex 03/22/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 23, 2012 1:22pm]
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