Voters in the town of Jay will decide next week whether to keep a second justice position or to eliminate it.
The town has fluctuated between one and two justice positions over the years. Most recently, in July, the town board voted to eliminate the second position. The board argues that there's no need for a second judge, and eliminating the position will save money.
"The caseload speaks for itself," town Supervisor Randy Douglas told the Enterprise. "We did an investigation of it, and it's not needed."
When a few town residents caught wind of the decision, they were not happy with it and decided to force a public vote. Fred Balzac, who is running for town councilman, was one of those people.
Balzac said he tries to attend most town board meetings, but he missed the one in July at which the board voted to eliminate the position. When he first heard about it, he said his first reaction was, "This is going to be on the ballot, right? They wouldn't eliminate a town justice without us having a say."
He went to a town board meeting in August and asked members to add the position to ballots in the regular November election. Another town resident made the same request. The board decided not to do so.
Balzac then decided to petition for a special referendum. Most local laws are subject to a permissive referendum, in which members of the public can force a public vote on the law if they collect enough signatures on a petition. Balzac told the Enterprise he and another person collected 45 signatures - 5 percent of the about 890 who voted in the last election for governor - in about six hours.
Balzac said that at the August town board meeting, board members said they eliminated the position because Judge Robert Minogue had been wintering in Florida. Balzac said he felt that was the wrong way to go about dealing with that problem.
"Why didn't they inform the public about this whenever they found out about it?" Balzac said.
Town residents may have demanded that Minogue step down, or other people might have stepped forward to fill the seat, Balzac said.
Douglas sent the Enterprise a letter his board is distributing to town residents, dated Oct. 9. It lists about a dozen reasons why voters should support the town's decision.
"The Town of Jay previously operated with one competent judge at less cost with no problems," the letter reads.
It also lists savings in salary and annual training expenses. According to the letter, the decision was made strictly to save money.
Currently, both judges make $9,500 plus reimbursement for mandated training every year. In the letter, town board members say that if one judge position is eliminated, the most the board would propose for the remaining judge's salary would be $12,000. That would mean a savings of at least $7,000 a year in a town where every $16,000 was a percentage point on last year's tax levy.
"The elimination of one justice position would provide a significant cost savings, easing the financial burden to the Town of Jay taxpayers," the letter reads.
Balzac argues that the savings would not be significant. He said he believes the remaining judge, Dan Deyo, would either ask for more money next year or ask for raises in the future. He also argued that the town would have to pay for bringing a judge in from a neighboring town each time Deyo can't take a case, whether he's sick, on vacation or has a conflict of interest. According to the town board's letter, that happens with no cost to the town of Jay.
In addition to being concerned about the judge position, Balzac said he doesn't like how the town went about getting rid of it. He would have liked the board to have given public notice before making that decision, and that's why he pushed to get it on the ballot.
"We have a special election, and my hope is that many people will come out and vote because it's our right and our duty," Balzac said.
The referendum will be a yes or no vote. A yes vote will support keeping the town's resolution, which would eliminate the justice position. A no vote will support doing away with the town's resolution and keeping the second justice.
Polls will be open from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Amos and Julia Ward Theater or the Jay Community Center.
Contact Jessica Collier at 518-891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.