Fresno County courts may shut branch in Kerman

Kerman city officials expressed frustration Monday after Fresno County Superior Court administrators announced they may close the court's Kerman branch and ask residents to drive 25 miles to Firebaugh for many court cases, including traffic cases.

"For us, it's going to make a mess of things," said Bill Newton, the city's police chief. He said his officers will have to spend valuable time driving to Firebaugh for cases instead of patrolling in town.

Hilary Chittick, the court's presiding judge, said the small, one-courtroom branch may have to close in March because of state budget cuts.

A final decision has yet to be made; a public meeting will be held in Kerman on Dec. 17 to discuss the issue.

Chittick said closing the branch will save the courts about $100,000 a year.

The Kerman court, one of nine court branches in Fresno County, is open only one day a week and handles traffic cases as well as many civil cases.

It used to hear some criminal cases, but those were moved to the Firebaugh branch in September after the county Public Defender's Office said it could no longer staff the Kerman branch.

Chittick said that "a couple thousand" residents use the Kerman court each year for traffic cases.

A few hundred civil cases are filed in the court each year, she said.

If the branch closes, civil cases would likely be filed and heard at the civil courthouse in downtown Fresno, Chittick said.

She said she doesn't know whether criminal cases would continue to be heard in Firebaugh or would move to Fresno.

The Kerman branch, Chittick said, is "obviously more convenient for the public, but it's also a significant expense to the court and is not a facility that works well."

She said the court administrators are not considering closing any other branches.

Kerman City Manager Ron Manfredi said Monday that the proposal to close the branch was announced without consulting the city.

He said he wonders why some of the court branches on the county's east side could not be consolidated instead -- such as Selma and Fowler, which are less than five miles apart.

"It just seems to me that it's not being looked at in a comprehensive fashion," he said.

Chittick said court administrators are considering closing the Kerman branch not just to save money, but also because it is too small and is often in disrepair.

The building doesn't have a restroom and has had frequent infrastructure problems.

But Manfredi said the city would be willing to work with court administrators to find a better branch location.

City Council Member Richard Stockwell said he believes court administrators "didn't do due diligence" before making their proposal.

"I don't see why we can't have something in Kerman," he said.