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Egg Harbor Township Committee discusses central court with Atlantic County officials
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ATLANTIC COUNTY COURTS

Egg Harbor Township Committee discusses central court with Atlantic County officials

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EHT Special Meeting 11-17-2021.jpg

Atlantic County Counsel Jim Ferguson addresses Egg Harbor Township Committee regarding the Central Municipal Court of Atlantic County during a meeting Wednesday.

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The Township Committee held a special meeting Wednesday night to review the planned Central Municipal Court of Atlantic County. Committee members asked proponents of the central court about security, cost savings, technology and the potential social services that might be available at the court.

County Counsel Jim Ferguson told the committee he was committed to facilitating open communication between the county and the committee to ensure the court benefits all parties involved. He said a five-member committee of local government officials would ensure the municipalities remain informed.

“We want this to work, and not just work for the county itself, because it’s your court, it’s done for the benefit of each of the municipalities that is participating in it,” Ferguson said.

The central court would replace each participating municipality’s current court and handle all municipal-level litigation in the county. Most of the county’s 23 municipalities currently use individual courts to adjudicate municipal-level legal matters.

Egg Harbor Township is one of nine municipalities in Atlantic County that have agreed to join the consolidated court when it opens next year. The others are Estell Manor, Galloway Township, Hamilton Township, Linwood, Northfield, Port Republic, Ventnor and Weymouth Township.

Several hours before the meeting, the county said in a news release that the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office had agreed to provide security to the central court, after weeks of price negotiations. Committee members said they were appreciative that the Sheriff’s Office had been brought on over a private security agency.

William Reynolds, who works as a prosecutor in several municipalities in Atlantic County, attended Wednesday’s meeting. During a public comment portion, Reynolds said he wanted to make sure prosecutors at the county court had relationships with the people they serve and the local police to ensure everyone had a fair experience in municipal court. Illustrating his point, he recalled how, due to the coronavirus pandemic, he and municipal court staff had to do painstaking work with individual plaintiffs and defendants to ensure they could access Zoom for virtual court.

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Reynolds said Wednesday he would be meeting with county officials later to further discuss the central court. He added he wished the county had reached out to relevant figures, such as himself and Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler, earlier, and helped plan how they would best give people access to the new court.

“We could have all met six, eight months ago,” Reynolds said. “The biggest concern is our public.”

Members of the committee had many of their questions answered at the meeting, and appeared to leave feeling satisfied with the answers provided by the county. There was even considerable enthusiasm at the meeting over the central court being able to expand social services.

Former county Superior Court Judge Mark Sandson said Wednesday the central court was better positioned than many municipal courts to offer social services. Sandson said these services could be delivered to the many municipal-court litigants who struggle with mental-health or drug-addiction issues.

Township Committeeman Andrew Parker III said he believed the court would both save money and provide crucially needed social services to vulnerable township residents.

“I think that’s huge to take our court and have services right there where we’re out adjudicating,” Parker said. “Many of those people (who are defendants at municipal court) do not belong in jail, they need help.”

Sandson said Jewish Family Service had agreed to help staff the central court with social workers for the first 12 weeks. He said ultimately, the court could both save costs and improve justice in Atlantic County.

“That’s a core part of this court,” Sandson said of the increased access to social services. “I don’t mean to insult anybody, because there were great courts before, but we can make it better.”

Contact Chris Doyle

cdoyle@pressofac.com

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