Court changes cause friction

June 21, 2002 12:00 am

By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Nerves are raw and personality clashes are escalating at the courthouse as Del Norte County's court system is brought up-to-date and in sync with hundreds of new state requirements.

"I can assure you, the environment is so antagonistic it has become insufferable," said Sarah Sampels, treasurer and tax collector for Del Norte County.

At the center of the complaints is court administrator Linda Millspaugh, who must manage converting the court system from a county entity to an arm of the state government.

In charge of managing everything from signing payroll checks to setting up a system to get jail inmate paperwork from the courtroom to the jail bailiff, Millspaugh has busily worked three years to transform court operations.

Each court in each county is changing to one system statewide.

"We're not making the changes arbitrarily, there is a process," Millspaugh said. "Just dealing with finances, I have a book six-inches thick just dealing with new regulations on financial structuring."

Yet, a long list of Del Norte County professionals say those changes have caused more problems than improvements and it is affecting the general public.

More than that, they say Millspaugh's personal style and attitude are exacerbating tensions connected to the changes.

Last week, the Del Norte County Bar Association issued a vote of no confidence in the administration of the courts under Millspaugh.

"... and we further object to the hostile work atmosphere created by Linda Millspaugh in the court system," reads the Bar Association resolution.

About 13 local attorneys voted unanimously to issue the resolution.

On a two-week vacation during the vote, Millspaugh said none of the attorneys told her about it and said it's a personnel issue not appropriate to talk publicly about.

Nested in many alleged incidents of hostile and unfriendly treatment of court clerks and attorneys by Millspaugh are three more serious accusations of mismanagement. The charges include:

• Keeping inmates in the county jail beyond their release date because of an inefficient bureaucracy.

• Attempting to co-mingle county funds with Millspaugh's own money.

• Unnecessarily reducing revenues to the county by contracting for services elsewhere.

Attorneys Rick McClendon and Leroy Davies both say their clients are sometimes kept in jail beyond their release date.

The two attorneys say that's Millspaugh's fault because she added steps in the paperwork process that take weeks longer than before.

"That never happened before," McClendon said. He added that he knows of four people kept in jail past their release date because of the new system.

Davies and McClendon said in the past, orders for release, called minute orders, traveled with the bailiff and the inmate directly from court to jail. Now the orders go from the court to the clerk's office for processing, then to the jail staff, they said.

"It's unnecessary bureaucracy. Sgt. Bill Stephens has had to call Linda Millspaugh at 11 at night because the documents for my client weren't delivered on time," Davies said.

Opening bank accounts for the court with her own personal funds has also put her practices in question.

Dubbed the "18-day war" by Sampels, the two administrators fought over the appropriateness of whether court funds, channeled through Sampels' county office from the state, should be put into an account with Millspaugh's own money in it.

"It's one of the most basic accounting principles that you don't co-mingle funds," Sampels said.

Money for the operations and administration of the courts flows from state offices into the county treasurer's accounts to be placed into the Superior Court's account.

Millspaugh opened a new account last month with a $100 personal check, then asked Sampels to release the court's funds into that account.

Sampels refused the request until Millspaugh showed she had opened a new account without her own money in it.

Infuriated, according to Sampels, Millspaugh lobbed several swear words at Sampels for denying the request.

John Judnick, the man in charge of Audit Services for the Judicial Council of California, confirmed that Millspaugh did use her own money to open the account and that such a practice is unusual and not preferred.

Judnick said that in this case, however, it was an acceptable practice because Millspaugh's money was refunded to her before court funds were put in the account.

The issue has since been resolved. Sampels said it took 18 days, however, and that she was forced to endure several hostile phone calls. Now, she said, employees of the two offices aren't allowed to talk to each other.

The massive transition has also affected Del Norte County's income. Auditor Christie Babich said changes in the court's management has cost the county at least $100,000 a year.

Instead of paying the county to process the court's payroll, to review the court's claims and to print the court's thousands of forms on its printing press, Millspaugh has taken the court's business elsewhere.

"That hurt the county," Babich said.

Purportedly Millspaugh changed services because she did not like county personnel looking at court expenditure receipts or dealing with county department heads, according to Babich and Sampels.

But Millspaugh said it was the state's directive to have payroll and human resources and other accounting systems changed.

"The county said ‘we can do it for you, but you'll have to give us more people.' Why would I do that when we can just do it ourselves or hire someone that can?" Millspaugh asked.

She also said the state has a goal for all courts in each county to make a complete break from county operations within three years, so that all courts are on a standardized system.

Most say they could live with changes imposed by the state, but Millspaugh's management style is something else.

Attorneys say they find her vindictive, unpleasant and they say she often overreacts when she thinks people are threatening her turf.

"It's a lot more inconvenient and she has created a hostile atmosphere ... The court is where we are, where we live, where we make a living and it's become so unpleasant to be there," Mavris said.

He gave some examples.

Instead of opening early in the morning and staying unlocked all day, the courtrooms are now locked all the time unless court is in session.

The new practice started after McClendon took it upon himself to construct a simple noise barrier for the court reporter. McClendon, who has done other spot repairs and additions to the courthouse over the last 20 years, said the court reporter had trouble hearing over the clerks' computers.

The addition reportedly bothered Millspaugh, who ordered the structure dismantled and the subsequent locking of the court doors.

Mavris and McClendon said this inconveniences attorneys who now cannot lay out their papers and prepare for court before it starts.

Mavris also said that due to practices Millspaugh changed, it often takes three months to get paid for a case the court assigned to him. Before Millspaugh's changes, it took two weeks, he said.

Members of the Del Norte Bar Association have been circulating a 20-page packet of newspaper articles about similar Millspaugh complaints in her previous job in Glenn County.

One article outlines an incident of alleged assault by Millspaugh on one of her employees. Other articles portray incidents of sloppy bookkeeping and a high rate of employee dissatisfaction and turn over.

"When I read those articles, I thought ‘Wow, dj vu,'" McClendon said.

Here, attorneys say clerks are not allowed to have food, candy, water or fans at their desks and that doughnuts are not allowed in the courtroom as per Millspaugh's orders.

But if there is a morale problem with her employees here, it's news to her, she said.

"I came back from my vacation with flowers on my desk from my staff and they are always bringing back little presents from their trips," Millspaugh said. She added that the flowers are signed, "from the whole gang."

So far, pleas to her boss, Del Norte Superior Court Judge Robert Weir, to solve the alleged problems have gone unanswered, say the attorneys.

Weir, also the presiding judge, was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Del Norte's other Superior Court judge, William Follett, said as far as he can tell, management of the court is not less efficient or more expensive under Millspaugh.

He said complaints about her "appear to be personnel matters" and that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on them.

"The only solution is for the presiding judge to hire someone else," said McClendon.

Weir did not return phone calls left by The Daily Triplicate.