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Judges in tight quarters

One of Judge Thomas E. Penick Jr.'s staff members will spend the summer working in an old safe. That's one example of how eight Pinellas-Pasco circuit judges and their staff have had to make do with tight quarters in the old Pinellas Courthouse since late April, when a storm ripped off a roof and blew out windows on the fourth floor of the newer courthouse building.

Business continues as usual on the new building's other floors, but county officials say it will take at least three months to make the fourth floor habitable again. In the meantime, judges and their staff are coping in the other building.

"Let me put it to you this way," Penick said. "It's cozy and it's fun. We have got to have a positive attitude."

Penick and his three staff members are sharing a space meant for two people "at the most," he said.

His guardianship fee clerk has taken over the old safe as an office.

"We felt it was appropriate, since he handles money," Penick joked.

Penick's office is across the hall from where people pay traffic fines. Irate ticket payers would see his sign and barge into his office to complain until he put a bailiff at the door, he said.

"It's a little crowded, but we are all understanding," said Judge James R. Case. "It is harder on the litigants than the judges," he said, because there is no elevator in the old courthouse and they must climb the stairs to his chambers.

Hearings are moved downstairs when some of the participants cannot climb the stairs, Case said.

"We are getting a lot more exercise than we used to get," said Judge John S. Andrews.

Despite the inconveniences, the judges praise the county's general services staff, who moved them into the temporary quarters. The judges are sponsoring a picnic for general services employees at the end of the month, Case said.

"Everybody is being really good about it," said Bruce St. Denis, the county's general services director. "But I am sure they are anxious to be back."

St. Denis said the newer building's roof is finished, and contractors are putting in the wallpaper and carpet.

"The one thing that is holding us up is the windows," he said.

An architect is redesigning them so they are smaller and made of stronger glass, so a storm won't destroy them as easily, St. Denis said.

Because no date has been set for the windows to be finished, St. Denis has set no date for the judges to move back in. He said three months is a guess.

Court Administrator J. William Lockhart said it was lucky that the storm happened when it did. The first floor of the old courthouse is to be restored soon. If that work had begun, there would have been no place for the judges to move.

"We are just very, very, very lucky to have had the old courthouse," Lockhart said. "I don't know what we would have done."

It also gives the county the opportunity to renovate the fourth floor and to re-engineer the windows that have been giving them problems for a while, he said.

It does, however, delay the planned renovation of the old courthouse, he said.

Criminal traffic court cases have been moved out of the Clearwater courthouse, to give more space to civil trials, Lockhart said, but that was planned to happen later anyway, he said.

Traffic court is being held at the North Pinellas complex, two miles north of Countryside Mall on U.S. 19.

South county criminal traffic cases are being heard at 1800 66th St. N in St. Petersburg.

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