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Othello Municipal Court achieves first anniversary

by CHERYL SCHWEIZER
Staff Writer | March 18, 2024 4:57 PM

OTHELLO — It’s been a bit more than a year since the city of Othello ended its interlocal agreement with Adams County for court services in favor of establishing its own Othello Municipal Court. Municipal Judge Carolyn J. Benzel said the court has since grown into a well-functioning system.

“There's always room for improvement,” Benzel said. “It hasn’t all been smooth, but I have to say I was surprisingly pleased at how well the court is functioning.”

Benzel said the new court began operation Jan. 1 of last year handling the city’s responsibility for the prosecution of its adult misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor crimes. Benzel was appointed to the position of judge when the new court was established. 

Benzel, who works part-time and is still a judge with Adams County, said she went into the new position with a goal for how the new court would operate.

“My goals are very similar to what we have over in Adams County District Court,” she said. “When you're a judge, what you want is a court that's going to be independent, separate from the other branches of government and you want it to be fair and you wanted to be impartial.”

This independence ensures confidence in the court’s rulings and operations. 

“If you can't establish that you're independent, you're not going to have that confidence of the public. Then everything is sort of defeated,” Benzel said. “Here, that was especially important to me because the court is inside City Hall and the Police Department is right next door.”

Benzel also discussed her goals as a judge.

“My personal goal is to treat everybody fairly that comes into this courtroom, whether or not you're a defendant or an attorney or a victim, treating people with respect, and I think we've reached that goal,” she said. 

Comparing her work with Adams County to Othello’s court, Benzel said running a new system can be more difficult than one that is already established. Othello Municipal Court’s public defenders and prosecuting attorney were all experienced but new to Othello, Benzel said. 

“We have two public defenders right now on contract and a prosecuting attorney,” she said. “They have quite a bit of experience and I think that has really helped in making this process as smooth as it has been because I really was anticipating a few more struggles.”

Benzel talked more about some of the challenges when establishing the court over the last year. 

“We didn't even have a criminal code when the municipal court first started, so the city council had to adopt a criminal code,” she said. 

Benzel said another issue has been dealing with ongoing cases that were filed at the Adams County District Court prior to the establishment of the new court. Despite being dealt with in Othello Municipal Court, the cases have to be logged in the District Court database and remain filed there. Fortunately, Benzel said these cases are dwindling in number.

Going forward, Benzel said there are some things she will be keeping in mind for improving the court. 

“I'm going to continue doing what I'm doing,” Benzel said. “I'm going to try to improve maybe equal access to the courts a little bit more. I'm hoping we can still have all of the same players, the public defenders that we have.”

The city’s future will also impact the court, such as its staffing. Currently, the court’s only administrative staff is Court Clerk Administrator Jessica Melo, who has worked in court administration for more than twenty years. 

“I see the city of Othello only growing, and usually that means the caseload will probably increase as well. I have one staff (member) right now, and she does a lot. It's more than a 40-hour work week for her most days and she's going to need some assistance, so I foresee in the future getting another clerk.”

Benzel said she would also like to establish some sort of probation service. Currently, the court uses bench supervision, where Benzel makes sure the individual upholds their probation. 

“There's a wonderful probation officer in Adams County who deals with the adult misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. He's done a fantastic job for the county,” Benzel said. “It would be nice if there could be some sort of interlocal agreement between the city and the county with regards to probation services or even establishing our own probation officer.”

Benzel said a probation officer or service would provide more one-on-one interaction and oversight for individuals and free up Benzel and her staff from some of the administrative work as the caseload increases. 

“I'm honored that I get to serve the people of this great city,” Benzel said. “Overall, I'm just really grateful for the opportunity to be an integral part of this court. It's exciting.”

Gabriel Davis may be reached at gdavis@columbiabasinherald.com.

    Othello Municipal Court Clerk Administrator Jessica Melo gives details on the process of setting up the court to the Othello City Council during a December 2022 meeting prior to the court’s official start Jan. 1, 2023.
 
 
    Exterior of Othello City Hall, which houses city staff, the Othello Police Department and the Othello Municipal Court. Municipal Judge Carolyn J. Benzel said it was especially important to her that the municipal court be completely independent and impartial since it holds its proceedings in a building shared by other branches of local government.