Ask any journalist what makes the biggest difference in covering public agencies, and they’re not likely to name the top dog.

As helpful or unhelpful as an elected official may appear, they are rarely the first stop on a reporter’s quest to get information. Instead, they turn to an organization’s front line of defense public service—the public information officer, or PIO.

That’s why it’s nice to see good folks be recognized for their work assisting the public and the Fourth Estate.

The annual Phoenix New Times “Best of Phoenix” arrived, and “Best PIO” goes to a couple of staffers at the Superior Court for Maricopa County—Vincent Funari and Karen Arra. Congratulations!

(If you’re surprised the New Times has such a wonky category, you may not have noticed that the alternative news weekly has been in court a time or three. If anyone desires a transparent and fair court process, it’s the New Times and its soon-to-be-vamoosed owners!)

I first came across the good news on the court’s own Facebook page, but there was no link to read the glowing tribute penned by the digitally-ink-stained wretches. Whazzup, I thought? I mean, if anyone knows social media and how to link up a storm, that court and these PIOs do.

So I shuffled over to the PNT’s own site, searched, located the item—and had a good chuckle at how the newspaper heaps praise along with a side of sarcasm. You can read it here.

Given how accomplished Vincent and Karen are, it’s no wonder that they decided to excerpt only the pertinent portion and leave the snarky history lesson aside.

But here at AZ Attorney, we enjoy the whole, unvarnished story!

If you come across either of these great professionals when you pass through the court, give them your best wishes; they’ve earned it.

32 days ago, a court tower heralded as a model for the nation was opened. Yesterday, the chief engineer tasked with heading that project was fired.

The speed with which his departure occurred may end up telling us a lot about a county and the storms it has weathered.

On November 11, Kenny Harris played a large role in a Maricopa County event marking the door-opening of the Superior Court’s new tower. The path getting there had been a long one, marked by controversy, lawsuits and allegations—never proven—of wrongdoing. (You can read about the building’s topping-out here.) It involved rancor by a county attorney and a county sheriff, and bruised egos and reputations. But the final result was described as a structure that would last 100 years and be envied and copied by courts across the United States.

But just a month later, the county is roiled again in a high-profile controversy, this one about staff accepting gifts from vendors who worked for the county. In fact, one of the three significant vendors Kenny Harris praised at the November 11 event—Parsons—is one of the companies named in the independent investigator’s report on staff gifts.

Maricopa County officials take delivery of the Court Tower Certificate of Occupancy (Kenny Harris, far left)

As today’s news story describes, Mr. Harris was a pivotal figure in a wide variety of public building projects. Since being hired by the county in 2007, he had spearheaded projects that ran into the many millions of dollars. And many of the results, like the Phoenix Art Museum expansion and the University of Phoenix stadium, are recognized as superior work.

You may read in the story about the grounds for which County Manager David Smith fired Harris. As always in the employment context, there may be more going on than is reported in the news. For instance, you have to get all the way to the final three paragraphs to see that there may have been other “dysfunction” in the office. But even given that, the firing took even County Supervisors by surprise.

It will be impossible to determine for sure, but it is not far-fetched to believe that the turmoil surrounding the county—and this tower—over the past few years played a role in this week’s events. After all, you need only read the court tower’s FAQ page to see the focus on accountability and transparency. If you go there expecting answers to questions like how many floors there are or what hours the building is open, you may be surprised at the posture of the questions and responses. This was—is—a county under fire.

Kenny Harris, Nov. 11, 2011

So it would be understandable that controversy would be avoided at all costs. The County Manager, having helped see his employer through years of turmoil, may have decided the new terrazzo floor and the courtroom floors above it must be free of controversy.

Of course, Harris is examining his legal options, so county residents may have yet another opportunity to see how their government works. We’ll see what’s revealed.

As November ends, it would be a mistake not to note a unique and helpful story in Arizona Attorney Magazine this month. It examines a capital case crisis that gripped a county, and that was addressed in a strategic way.

The article, by two Superior Court Judges and one Commissioner, follows on a previous story that raised alarms about a huge backlog in capital cases. While carefully avoiding the debate over the propriety of the death penalty, the authors faced the question of how the justice system can render justice when so many cases are in the pipeline that may result in the ultimate penalty.

Pretty well, they conclude this month. As the article opens:

“In April and May 2009, Arizona Attorney Magazine published, in two parts, ‘The Capital Case Crisis in Maricopa County: What (Little) We Can Do About It.’ Our goal in that piece was to explain the complexities of the preparation and trial of such cases, the steps required, and the participants involved, as a way to explain why capital cases take so long to try. We also discussed how they eventually resolve at the end of a long state and federal appellate and post-conviction relief process. On average, the length of time from arrest until execution of the sentence is 20 years

“As of Aug. 31, 2008, the time frame used in the article, the capital caseload in Maricopa County Superior Court appeared dire, with few apparent options to reduce capital cases awaiting trial.

“As of July 1, 2011, almost three years later, the situation has changed drastically. This follow-up article sets forth the reasons for this turnaround and the continuing steps the court has adopted to deal with the problem of too many capital cases to try with an insufficient number of judicial officers, courtrooms, experienced lawyers and mitigation specialists. We believe that what we describe may be used as a model for other jurisdictions faced with a similar problem, now or in the future.”

The previous story (in two parts) is available online here and here.

It is hard to describe the amount of work that the authors put into these articles. Five, 10, 20 years from now, I expect that readers will turn back to these stories to view a snapshot in time—and to revisit how a court solved what appeared to be an insoluble problem.

Thank you to all the authors: Judge Bob Gottsfield, Marianne Alcorn (now deceased), Judge Douglas Rayes and Commissioner Patti Starr.

On Friday, Maricopa County dedicated its new court tower, officially taking ownership of the 16-story structure at Second Avenue and Madison Street in downtown Phoenix.

Though operations will not commence in the building until Arizona Centennial Day in February 2012, county staff and supervisors decided to formally mark the delivery of the certificate of occupancy.

As workers made tweaks and final adjustments, dignitaries gathered Friday morning in the building’s lobby for brief remarks by those who played a large part in the building’s completion.

“On time and under budget” was repeated by numerous speakers, clearly pleased to be able to report the fact.

Supervisor Don Stapley said that the county had saved $198 million in financing costs by building when it did—rather than delaying, as detractors had recommended. The building is now debt-free, he said.

“This building is a testament to the courage and tenacity of the board and staff in the face of their challengers,” he said. “The citizens of the county for the next 100 years will be the winners.”

Supervisor Fulton Brock said that the building’s inscription—“The first duty of society is justice”—is what the board and the county stand for.

“This building is the envy of every judicial district in the nation,” Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox said. “When Maricopa County sets its mind to something, there’s no stopping it.”

Also speaking was County Manager David Smith, who thanked all of the contractors and vendors.

“Today we celebrate the success of a great team in what will be a 100-year building.”

Smith described some of the many unique elements of the new structure, such as separate waiting areas for victims and defendants, holding cells that will accommodate more than 1,000 inmates, and a variety of courtroom designs made to address varying needs. Smith also noted that there were more than 2 million work hours on the project with no lost-time accidents.

Assistant County Manager for Public Works Kenny Harris praised the three construction and design teams that led the operation: HDR, Parsons and Arcadis.

Event attendees stood atop one of the building’s featured elements: a terrazzo tile floor depicting the flow of the Salt River.

Representing the court (for Presiding Judge Norm Davis, who was unable to attend the Veterans Day event) was Judge Eddward Ballinger. He said, “This project represents an example of the prudent and wise leadership by supervisors and county staff. Of all the bickering we see today, this is an example of efficient bipartisanship.”

Here is another story on the opening. And the Court Tower has its own web page here.

More photos are below. And more are available on the Arizona Attorney Magazine Facebook page.

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On Thursday morning, the Arizona Superior Court for Maricopa County made an announcement that many lawyers will be happy to see. It explains that a new, speedier way to enter the courthouse is now available for attorneys.

Here is the complete release:

Judicial Branch of Arizona

Office of Media Relations

Old Courthouse

125 W. Washington

Phoenix, Arizona 85003-2205

602.506.7570

www.twitter.com/courtpio

“Equal Justice Under Law”

Contact:           Karen Arra, Media Relations Director, 602.506.7570

New Express Attorney Entrance

Attorneys will now have shorter lines and wait times to get into Superior Court if they use the new express attorney entrance located in the East Court Building.

Any attorney presenting his/her bar card can use the attorney line located on the east side of 1st Avenue. The other court entrances will still remain open to both attorneys and the public. 

Superior Court Presiding Judge Norman Davis said, “We are continually exploring ways to reduce the time court users are required to wait to clear security screening each day.  Since September 19, 2011 we have experimented with an attorney entrance at the east entrance of theEastCourtBuilding.  The results are favorable enough that we have decided to keep this entrance in place to expedite the attorneys entrance into the court complex at least until the Criminal Tower is opened next February.”

Courthouse security continues to be a growing concern for Superior Court. Last year, the Superior Court screened 3.7 million court visitors and confiscated more than 34,000 weapons and 60,000 prohibited items in 53 court and probation buildings across the county.

Although the number of people screened over the past five years has remained constant, the court has witnessed an increase in weapons, prohibited items and threats against judges and court staff.

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Harold Merkow (Photo by Kathryn Stafford, Peoria Times)

If there is any lesson to be learned from today’s news, it is this: More Harold Merkow!

No celebrity, Merkow is the Arizona lawyer who served as the hearing officer in the case of a Deputy Maricopa County Attorney. She had been fired and is in the process of appealing that termination. Arguing her case before the hearing officer was her first step (the decision ultimately will be made by the Merit Commission.)

The attorney in question is Lisa Aubuchon, who was part of the controversy surrounding that office under the leadership of Andrew Thomas. Both of them, along with Rachel Alexander, are the subject of bar complaints.

Today, Hearing Officer Merkow released his 96-page report. In it, he upheld the firing of Aubuchon.

But my chant of “More Merkow” has nothing to do with his conclusions; I leave the determination of their accuracy to others, and to the sands of history.

Lisa Aubuchon

What I enjoyed was Merkow’s prose. This guy (whom I don’t know) has a novelist’s familiarity with the English language. Among my favorite conclusions: “Appellant was a dervish that was unstoppable until reality set in and she was put on administrative leave, after which she was dismissed.”

You can read the complete report yourself here (thanks to KPHO.com).

And to preview things, here are some of today’s tweets from the Arizona Republic’s Yvonne Wingett, who has been covering the interminable merit hearings for weeks. (If you’re not following her on Twitter, you should start ASAP).

  • Merkow: Aubuchon’s duties “were discarded by her in favor of pursing vendettas against public officials who she openly disparaged.”
  • Merkow: Aubuchon was fired “bc she ignored and abandoned fundamental duties that every prosecutor owes to the public …”
  • Merkow: “…or for being David Hendershott’s sock puppet, or for being the self-styled poster child for political retaliation.”
  • Merkow: Aubuchon wasn’t fired “for being Andrew Thomas’s junkyard dog, or for being Joe #Arpaio‘s stalking horse …
  • Merko’s 96-page recommendation to uphold firing of Lisa Aubuchon contains some doozies. Snippets to follow.
  • Check @azcentral throughout the day for updates on #Aubuchon story.
  • The Republic’s Michael Kiefer and I will be following the Aubuchon story today. I filed story from home – have to get ready for work!
  • Merkow: (Aubuchon) abjured her role as a ‘gatekeeper’ for justice — the sentry who stands between the people and the weight of the law.
  • Merkow: Appellant was a dervish that was unstoppable until reality set in and she was put on adm leave, after which she was dismissed.
  • Merkow: The damage to the County Attorney’s Office reputation is recognized most immediately by the vocal excoriation of Sheila Polk.
  • Merkow on Aubuchon: Damage wreaked by her actions is inestimable.
  • Merkow on Aubuchon: The long shadow of appellant’s corruption of the concept of justice has been proven by the evidence in this appeal.
  • Hearing officer recommends to uphold firing of former #Maricopa Deputy County Attorney Lisa Aubuchon http://t.co/zzWGQsc via @azcentral