By Eric Siddall
If a private landlord rented a commercial office space and the building was prone to sewage pipe ruptures, asbestos contamination, mold exposure, and was considered unfit to withstand an earthquake, we would call a government regulatory agency and expect the government to close down that building and fine the landlord. This private landlord would be called a slumlord. But when the government is your landlord, who do you call?
Recently, in the Van Nuys East courthouse, a water pipe burst, soaking the asbestos-infused ceiling tiles and causing them to crumble and shower poisonous particles down into the offices of the District Attorney. Everything in those offices, from work computers to personal photos, was permanently contaminated. This same building experienced a sewage pipe break a year prior. This scenario is not unique. Similar hazards arise regularly in state courthouses across the county.
In the downtown Criminal Courts Building, the HVAC system is shot, so employees, families of defendants and victims, and the public who serve as jurors either freeze or swelter. At Eastlake Juvenile the HVAC system sprays a fine particulate of black powder across desks and paperwork. In other court buildings, leaking water has seeped into the porous drywall, resulting in breeding grounds for toxic mold.
And this isn’t even the really bad news. The alarming news is that many of the state buildings in which we work are literally death traps. A 2017 seismic safety study determined that more than two dozen court buildings in Los Angeles County face a very high or high risk of collapse when a big earthquake strikes. More than a dozen others pose a moderate risk. Included in the category of high-risk building is the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Courts Building. This 19 story building is the central artery of the justice system in Los Angeles. Also on the list is the Eastlake Juvenile Courthouse where county and state employees are housed and which is visited daily by at-risk youth and their families.
According to the California Courts website, “approximately $1.4 billion was taken from the court construction fund in recent years to help get California through the recession. Now, courts are desperate to get their projects back on track for the safety of their court users and staff.
While the pensions of public employees are under attack as “excessive,” the same employees are expected to work in buildings with substandard infrastructure and to endure exposure to raw sewage, toxic mold, and asbestos because it is cheaper in the short term not to fix the problems. Placing public employees and the public who visit these buildings at risk is unacceptable and unconscionable. As illustrated on this map, the crumbling courthouse infrastructure issue is not only a problem that plagues Los Angeles County; it’s endemic in court buildings throughout the state.
Not surprisingly, it all comes down to money. The State of California, which owns these buildings, has failed to properly invest in its infrastructure. It prefers to wait until there is a catastrophic system failure and slap a Band-Aid on the wound rather than take proactive measures to prevent the problem in the first place.
The governor has proposed funding to construct 10 new courthouses across the state, and 29 new and renovated courthouses have been completed since 2002, when the state’s judicial branch assumed responsibility for court construction and maintenance. But more needs to be done. While state leaders have zero problem spending $67 billion on a high-speed train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, they have not adequately increased the state court budget to remedy this urgent problem. Of course, there is a reason for this lack of priority. Who remembers the guys who fixed government buildings? Building a high-speed train, now that is the stuff legacies are made out of.
We are realists. We do what we do not for riches, but rather a belief in public service and justice. We don’t expect walnut-paneled corner offices with panoramic views of the LA Basin. We also recognize that many priorities are competing for limited dollars. But the deputy district attorneys, public defenders, alternate public defenders, sheriff deputies, and court employees who serve the public deserve better.
Spending money patching rupture after rupture is a temporary fix that ends up costing far more in the long run than would forward-thinking investment in sweeping renovations or new construction. And it doesn’t begin to address the seismic vulnerabilities of our buildings. It is imperative that the state begin acting – now – to protect not just public employees but also the men, women, and children who pass through our buildings every day. Failure to do so is not just irresponsible, it’s inexcusable.
Eric Siddall is Vice President of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.