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Lawyers Journal

Add lack of information to list of complaints for Middlesex County Courthouse occupants

Spirits were high at the Massachusetts Bar Association's House of Delegates meeting on May 25, 2005; the day before, the state's chief trial court judge and the commissioner of the Division of Capital Asset Management had issued a joint statement saying that "given the high level of concern on the part of certain building occupants over the asbestos-related work associated with the elevator project…the asbestos abatement phase of the elevator replacement project will not be undertaken while the building is occupied."

The statement was in line with the recommendations of the MBA Middlesex County Courthouse Committee appointed to conduct an independent investigation of the courthouse situation. At the time, attorney Chris Milne, who represents the court workers and the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, considered the joint statement to be a victory for the MBA and his clients, saying that the decision to evacuate the building during the asbestos removal was a direct result of the committee's efforts.

Although the May joint statement cautioned that "the relocation of the busiest courthouse in the commonwealth…will …require careful and methodical planning, which will take many months," the situation still looked promising in late June. According to a joint statement by Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan and DCAM Commissioner David B. Perini, released internally on June 29, "shortly after [the May 24] announcement, DCAM and AOTC began discussions concerning the temporary relocation of both court and sheriff operations now housed in the building."

It's been five months since DCAM announced its decision to relocate employees, and three months since the intranet posting that cautioned that "the planning effort to relocate operations out of the building is enormously complex and will not be completed for a number of months." Courthouse employees are still working under virtually the same conditions, with the same health concerns and without any information as to when or where they will be relocated.

"I think that there was enough evidence presented to [the MBA] committee that the people working in the courthouse should have been relocated within a reasonable period of time. As the months turn… it would seem prudent to have a firm plan or a set date for their relocation by now," said attorney Domenic Paolini, a member of the MBA Middlesex County Courthouse Committee.

Martha Coakley, Middlesex County District Attorney, said, "We were told (in May), right before MBA vote, that the Trial Court had determined — even though they didn't believe they needed to — that they would proceed to develop some way to relocate people in order to go ahead with the plan. That's the last I've heard of anything."

Coakley said that since May, the fluctuating temperatures have been monitored, "but none of the basic problems have been fixed and continue to be irritating. The real problem has always been that the elevator needs fixing, and it can't be fixed while people are here because of the asbestos.

"We've been saying that now for several years. The statement was made in May that ‘we are going to move people out' and I'm not aware that any progress has been made. If any has been made, it has not been communicated to us."

When contacted for comment, Richard Zelinsky of Goulston & Storrs, who represents DCAM, said that his client chose not to comment for this story, but rather, will stand by the statements contained in the June 29 release.

According to the release, Mulligan and Perini report that:

The planning effort to temporarily relocate operations out of the building is enormously complex and will not be completed for a number of months. We are happy to report, however, that significant progress is already being made. DCAM has engaged an architectural firm to assist in the planning efforts. DCAM technical staff and AOTC are working with the architect to evaluate various scenarios and to recommend a ‘conceptual plan' to deal with the relocation and the elevator replacement project. The resulting plan will be referred to as "conceptual" due to the significant uncertainties that will need to be addressed, particularly with regards to funding, before a specific approach, or series of approaches, can be implemented. The conceptual plan will also examine potential long-term scenarios dealing with a more comprehensive renovation of the courthouse.

Although courthouse occupants were reassured that their health is a paramount concern and disruptions to court operations will be minimized, "due to the urgent capital needs throughout the court system, capital resources already committed to other high priority court projects being planned cannot be diverted to Cambridge." In addition, the release said funding requirements that exceed the $14 million already committed to the elevator project would need to be provided through new appropriations.

Milne is unmistakably frustrated; he represents the employees of the building and no one he knows of has any information as to when building occupants will be relocated or when renovation plans will be completed. "Nobody knows because they are giving us absolutely no information. People in the building deserve to have Commissioner Perini and Chief Justice Mulligan look the employees in the eyes and answer every question as to what they are doing."

According to Milne's reading, the "May press release context was urgent, a matter of months. Any reasonable person would interpret it to mean by the end of 2005, people will be out of the building. A month later, they issue a press release with qualifications and ‘other courthouses are worse' and ‘we don't have money for this one.' Give us specifics of what they've done to investigate available space."

Milne compared the current situation to the Norfolk Probate and Family Court, which was ordered to relocate in August of 2002. "By April of 2003, they had found leased space, built out the leased space and moved the entire court. There's no reason they couldn't do the same thing with the Middlesex Superior Court, the District Court, and the district attorney's office."

Cambridge District Court Clerk-Magistrate Robert L. Moscow, who has been stuck in the courthouse elevators four times, believes the Chief Justice "is a man of his word and he must be doing something. I think he's doing something, but it hasn't been communicated to us."

Moscow added, "The delay is kind of unusual. If we are still in a building where elevators need to be replaced, at least we should know if there is some attempt being made to move us out."

"There's immediate need for a short-term and long-term solution for this building. It would be appropriate to devise plans with the input of the tenants and other interested parties in order to save taxpayer dollars and continue with the effective delivery of the justice services that the court provides. But it is frustrating to see little or no progress since the year 2000 on this issue," said Coakley.

"We shouldn't be arguing about this," said Milne. "The Massachusetts Bar Association says we value the people of the Trial Court, so let's get them out. Court officials agreed to that on paper, but so far, the perception of everyone working in the building is that that's not happening."

Mulligan, however, said state officials are working to solve the problem.

"Commissioner Perini and I have said that the employees will be relocated during the asbestos abatement prior to replacement of elevators. We've never backed off that; we are going to take the occupants out of that building," stated Mulligan.

According to Mulligan, he and Perini have been discussing funding and options with the administration and anticipate continuing those discussions with legislative leaders. "Once we've reached a consensus with the three branches of government on how to proceed, we will be able to give additional information to the building occupants and to the public," said Mulligan.

Although the project may become more complex, Mulligan pointed out that a vacant building offers more opportunity to make improvements beyond the asbestos abatement and elevator repair. "DCAM and I have been evaluating a number of options which have been developed by our consultants. We anticipate that we will complete the evaluation process within the next few weeks," said Mulligan.

He reported that both DCAM and AOTC are advocating for an expansion of the scope of the work originally planned for the elevator project. "Once we committed to relocating operations out of the building, it just made sense to explore additional upgrades to take advantage of a vacant building."

Milne responded, "On behalf of people in building, we wholeheartedly agree that a vacant building is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Let's get a first-class facility. We want to work with Chief Justice Mulligan and Commissioner Perini on that, but we want to make sure it's a farsighted solution that does not require people to be in that building while they're abating asbestos."

Milne added, "The people in the building would certainly appreciate it if within a few weeks there is some direct communication to them. It sounds like [DCAM and AOTC] have a lot of internal information and have generated options to consider. But the people who work in the building and the members of the bar and the public really have a right to have that disclosed to them."

"If we have a firm commitment within a few weeks and a blueprint put out there publicly, that would be very good. Hopefully, they will stick to that. It's going to take everybody, the Massachusetts Bar Association, the building occupants, the district attorney's office, everyone, to go to the legislature to say ‘we need the money.' It's a lot of money for the busiest courthouse in the commonwealth and they will do it, but the officials planning how we're going to do it have to get that piece done," said Milne.

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