Sonoita and Elgin residents listen to comments protesting the closing of the Sonoita Courthouse at a meeting held at the Sonoita Fairgrounds February 13.

Anger and frustration were evident at the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors meeting February 21, as nearly 30 people stood up to speak against the proposed closing of the Sonoita Courthouse.

Santa Cruz County Manager Jennifer St. John had proposed that the county close Justice Precinct 2 (JP2), and the Sonoita Courthouse, late last year, as a cost saving measure. JP2 Judge Keith Barth was notified of the proposal at the end of January. This measure was on the agenda for a vote at the February 21 Board of Supervisors meeting but was tabled until March 21. A study session has been scheduled for March 20.

St. John estimates that the county would save approximately $200,000 a year in salaries. Four full time positions, Judge Keith Barth, Constable Art Hinker and two clerks, would
be lost if the court were closed. She believes that the caseload in Sonoita could be absorbed by JP1, based in Nogales. According to her data, the Sonoita Court averages 15 cases per
week, as compared to JP1 which sees an average of 193 cases per week. St. John believes that these savings are necessary because of the county’s budget deficit, which is further
challenged by the rising costs to the county for employee retirement funds. “The repercussions of not having a balanced budget means that the County uses its savings to make up the short fall of revenues over expenditures,” St. John said. “If the budget isn’t balanced before the savings are depleted or if another financial crisis occurs, the
County could be in a situation where we would need to make drastic cuts.”

As soon as this proposal was made public, Sonoita residents began to protest the closing. On February 13, more than 150 people attended a contentious meeting at the Sonoita Fairgrounds to discuss this issue with District 3 supervisor Bruce Bracker and
St. John.

Several speakers lined up to describe Judge Barth’s service to the community. One woman told the story of her daughter “who was on her way to getting in trouble.” “I credit Judge Barth for turning her around,” she said. Gary Soliere, of Sonoita, said, “This community is fortunate to have a man of this caliber.”

Tempers flared at times. Bracker referred several times to an ad hoc committee of residents that had reviewed the proposal. It was pointed out, however, by several audience members that there was no such committee. Donna Federici, one of the mediators of the meeting, at one point told Bracker, “That smug look on your face is uncalled for,” and frustration grew as he was asked several times, but did not answer directly, if any other positions in the county were being eliminated. “You should step down or be recalled,” shouted out one audience member.

High taxes and lack of county services were the subject of many people’s remarks, as was the idea of secession from the county. Kurt Bahti, of Sonoita, stated that Sonoita and Elgin are “treated like the stepchild of Santa Cruz County.”

At the end of the February 13 meeting, Bracker addressed the audience, saying, “You believe passionately that the court should stay. I hear you, I really hear you.”

Judy Neal speaks about her opposition to the closure of JP2 at the Board of Supervisors meeting held February 21. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

Speakers at the Board of Supervisors meeting eight days later continued to press to keep the courthouse open. Judy Neal, of Elgin, addressed the supervisors saying, “This single cut makes no sense whatever,” and called for a “comprehensive review of all departments” to see where else funds could be cut. She believes that the data presented by St. John was outdated and incomplete, and that this incident has cost the county a “loss of respect and trust of the people.”

Judge Barth spoke of the threat to public safety if the court were closed. His court is responsible for issuing orders of protection that might not get issued if victims have to travel to Nogales to ask for help. He pointed out that Santa Cruz would become the only county in the state with only one Justice Precinct. “It’s not just a court,” he said. “It’s a service to the people.”

Melanie Pyle, of Elgin, asked that the supervisors “keep our local court. Nogales doesn’t have a clue what we do,” and suggested that secession would be a viable alternative if the court were closed.

David Green, of Sonoita, said, “This outcry from the Sonoita community is not just about the closing of the court.” He estimated that Sonoita and Elgin residents pay $3000/person in property taxes as opposed to a countywide average of $300/per person. He also cited activity at the fairgrounds and at local businesses and wineries as a positive force in the county. “Sonoita brings its ‘A’ game to keep the county in growth and tax revenues,” he said.

Doc Clyne, of Elgin, told the supervisors to look for other ways to save $200,000. “I’d rather drive on a bumpy road to Sonoita to pay my many traffic tickets than drive a paved road to Nogales.”

One person, Peter Potaska, of Elgin, spoke in favor of closing the courthouse, even though he said that he planned to run against Judge Keith Barth in the upcoming election. He believed that all court business could be done via face time on the telephone.

Elgin residents George Whitmill and Kat Crockett questioned St. John’s motives for wanting to close the Sonoita Courthouse. Producing blown up photos taken from Facebook of St. John in the company of JP1 judge Emilio Velasquez and his brother, Santa Cruz County School Superintendent Alfredo Velasquez, they asserted that the reason that she is proposing the closure of the Sonoita Courthouse may be to benefit Judge Velasquez and poses a potential conflict of interest. “Even the appearance of personal gain should be scrutinized,” Whitmill said.

One photo showing St. John holding up campaign signs for Velasquez may be evidence of a violation of the Hatch act, according to Crockett, and gives, at the least, “the appearance of abuse of authority.” Barth believes that this possible conflict of interest should be investigated by the attorney general’s office, “Somebody from the outside needs to look at this.”

“I have no conflict of interest as defined in the Arizona Revised Statutes,” St. John wrote in response to these charges. “The Hatch Act and its prohibitions are not applicable to either my former position or my current position and therefore, I have not committed any violation of the Hatch Act. The County does have policies regarding political activities and I complied with all county policies. Just for clarification, at the time I was the Administrative Services Director and not the County Manager.”