January 13, 2007

New Freetown justice learning on the job


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer     
Freetown Justice Terry Wolff talks with Solon Justice Royal Stevens Thursday after Wolff’s first day presiding over Freetown Town Court.

Staff Reporter

FREETOWN — Town Justice Terry Wolff saw three cases Thursday evening. One he adjourned, one he dismissed and in one he made his first major decision on the bench: to accept partial payments for back fines from a man who said he borrowed against next week’s paycheck to pay the first installment.
Not all judges accept less than the full amount. Wolff did and with it began his career in small town justice.
Wolff, 48, of 3900 Freetown Crossing Road, is a newly elected justice and Thursday evening was his first time on the bench in Freetown Town Court.
In many ways Wolff is the last of an old model and will see major reforms in his tenure as a justice. With a new state action plan set to take effect, judges will be required to attend more school and soon all courts will be provided with updated technology, such as computers, recorders and credit card machines.
“It went quietly, quickly, good I hope,” Wolff said after concluding his first court session.
As a research and development technician at Pall Trinity, where he has worked for the last 19 years, Wolff, like many small-town justices, has no legal experience. He said he ran for the position only because he was asked by Town Councilman Elwood Bryan.
Wolff, who has a mechanical engineering degree from Penn State University, said he lived in Syracuse most his life before moving to Freetown 17 years ago.
Since being elected in November, Wolff has been attending state-run classes in Syracuse — 48 hours of instruction spread out over three weekends — where he earned his certification. Wolff has also been shadowing his mentor, Solon Town Justice Royal Stevens.
“It was introductory to law cases, small claims court, DWI cases, contracts, TSLED, which is the new technology in ticket writing,” Wolff said of the schooling. “It was enough reading to keep you busy in between classes. It was more to show you where to get information. You can’t be expected to remember all the information. It was more to teach us to find the information when we need it.”
Wolff’s new part-time job comes with full-time obligations as the justices are expected to be on call 24 hours a day. The job also puts a lot of power in the hands of the person taking the position. Although Wolff was not sure the last time it happened in Freetown, the lower court judges are expected to preside over trials, and with that comes the possibility of sentencing a person to up to one year in Cortland County Jail.
Stevens said he has had only one trial in his nearly seven years on the bench because most of the cases he and his peers see are “cut and dried.”
“I told him basically don’t be afraid of it,” Stevens said when asked what advice he has given Wolff. “You’re going to have to teach yourself a lot. You can’t be afraid to ask questions.”
Stevens also explained that judges have a strong support network to tap into when they need help, including a hotline that they are able to call for advice, run the by New York State Unified Courts System.
“It’s a place in Albany that will only talk to judges,” he said. “They won’t talk to prosecutors. They won’t talk to defense attorneys. They won’t talk to anybody but a judge. You could call them up and ask them a question on anything. If they can’t give you an answer right then and there, they’ll call you back. They’ll explain it to you 20 times if they have to. They are very good and very knowledgeable.”
Additionally, local judges are expected to spend 16 hours a year in classes learning new laws and taking a refresher course. Stevens said some of his favorite yearly classes to attend are satellite conferences held at the Cornell Cooperative in Cortland.
“They do role playing,” he said. “We have one on DWIs and they showed a DWI trial and people remember a lot better what you see than what you read. Now they are going to start using a lot more than that. I would love to have them have more satellite (conferences).”
In his first day in the cold town barn where Freetown Town Court takes place twice a month Wolff did something rarely seen in the county and state courts but that sums up the small town, common sense justice that the lower court system relies on. When the defendant thanked him for his understanding on a traffic violation, Wolff shook the man’s hand and told him not to do it again.



Schools weighing cost of resource officer

Staff Reporter

Local school districts are preparing their budgets and for the first time in three years they are anticipating the additional cost of the school resource officer.
A three-year federal grant, which allowed local districts to have a police presence during the school day, will expire in June.
City school district resource officer Rob Reyngoudt has been at the school since the inception of the grant in July 2004. The grant covers the 2004-05 through 2006-07 school years.
“We strongly support the SRO,” said Police Chief James Nichols. “It creates a bond_between the police officer and the school community.”
The grant gave $125,000 to districts that applied for it. The grant is funded through the federal Community Oriented Policing Services in School Program.
According to Nichols, to date, the city has incurred $185,373 for the cost of the program and the federal government has reimbursed the city $106,060.
The grant agreement stipulates that in its fourth year, 2007-08, the program has to be funded by the school district and the entity it contracts with — the city police department.
The Cortland Police Department and the City School district are in discussions to continue funding the School Resource Officer program.
Nichols said that in its 2007 budget, the department has put aside $40,281 to pay to Reyngoudt’s salary and benefits from July through December after the grant expires. A year’s salary plus health benefits would cost the police department and the school district $81,448.
City Superintendent of Schools Lawrence Spring said school district officials are having conversations on what they can reasonably fit into the school budget.
Spring said the district is not sure how much money the district is willing to put aside.
“The city would love to be able to say the district would take care of the entire cost,” said Spring. He added that the district also would love for the city to foot the bill for the program.
Other districts that have resource officers such as Homer, Dryden and Marathon are all in the final year of their grant programs.
Superintendent of Dryden Schools Mark Crawford said there hasn’t been a discussion on how to pay for the salary of their resource officer in the final year of the agreement.
“That is a bridge we haven’t crossed,” Crawford said.
Superintendent of Homer Schools Doug Larison said the state would pay for the resource officer in his district for the 2007-08 school year and the district would reapply for the grant.
Gilbert Moore, spokesperson for the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in the U.S. Department of Justice, said that as of now there are no grants available for that particular program. He said every year the Justice Department is given a budget and it is told which programs are funded.
“Theoretically they are still eligible for the program,” Moore said. “They have the ability to reapply if the program has been funded.” Gilbert added that when the districts are _ready to reapply for funding, money might be available.
Reyngoudt said his job is to be a law enforcement officer, a law educator and a mentor in city schools.
“The more positive contact you have with a uniformed officer, the better,” Reyngoudt said.
Spring, Crawford and Larison said that after the fourth year of the program they would like to keep the resource officers in their districts.
“The district thinks it is important,” Spring said. “Parents think it is important, the mayor thinks it is important and the police think it is important. It is an extremely valuable thing.”
Moore agreed with the superintendents. He said a resource officer is not about having an armed police officer or crime levels in the schools, but breaking down barriers.
“An educator’s role begins with the first bell and ends with the last bell,” Moore said. “An officer can have authority inside and outside of school. An officer can straddle both those lines.”



Report to detail needed jobs

Staff Reporter

An economist with the state Department of Labor’s Syracuse office plans to present a report Tuesday to the Cayuga-Cortland Workforce Investment Board detailing which jobs are most needed in those two counties.
Those recommendations, which the Workforce Investment Board can approve with or without its own changes, will help the board determine how to allot its job training aid, said Roger Evans, the state economist who helped draw up the report.
Evans said the guidelines take into account in-demand jobs and the amount of time training would take.
“They are the safeguard to make sure that we don’t pay someone for training in basketweaving if they’re not likely to make a good business,” he said.
The guidelines build upon 2004 guidelines that can be found at
Agricultural equipment operators, nurses and sheet metal workers are some of the 55 in-need job titles listed in the 2004 report, the first and last time the study was conducted.
Evans would not reveal many details of the latest report, though he did say that it emphasizes manufacturing and health services jobs as the 2004 report did.
The jobs titles were based on a number of factors, Evans said, such as the area’s largest employers, the area’s fastest growing industries, the area’s highest paying industries and the area’s niche industries.
Evans said certain job titles have been expanded to more accurately reflect the kind of training the county can do.
For example, “accountant” was changed to “accountant/bookkeeper,” to allow better investment in worker training, he said.
“If someone comes off the street, the program doesn’t have enough money for four years of school,” he said.
Evans said the new report also places more of an emphasis on service-oriented occupations than the 2004 report.
Evans declined to elaborate further, as the report hasn’t been provided to the Workforce Investment Board yet. Judy Davison, director of the Cayuga-Cortland Workforce Investment Board, was unavailable Friday.