This is the third part of a three-part series looking back at the town of Pomfret justice candidates from the League of Women Voters Meet the Candidates event held at the 1891 Fredonia Opera House held on Oct. 22.
For the past 16 years, town of Pomfret Justice Ronald Johnson has overseen the town court. He will square off against candidate Anthony Pulci for the position in hopes of re-election for a fifth term. The two debated Thursday at the 1891 Fredonia Opera House.
To open the debate, each were asked what they felt the pressing issues were at the town court today.
"I feel that one pressing problem with the justice court today is a sharp increase of fines and surcharges attached to vehicle and traffic violations," Johnson said. "The consistent rise in these surcharges can result in political maneuvering to gain control of these revenues (and) have transformed a system dedicated to traffic safety to one of unregulated taxation."
As past-president of the Chautauqua County Magistrates Associations, Johnson said he has worked with state and local governments to at least begin an examination of the longterm effects of these policies.
"I believe the cost to run the court as it exists is excessive," Pulci said in his answer. "The court recently hired a full-time clerk at a cost of $20,000 per year, more than two part-time clerks would have cost. This position replaced only one part-time clerk at that time. My question to my opponent is what changed so drastically to justify that $20,000 a year in additional expenses to the taxpayers?"
Johnson defended the hiring by stating, "Recently there was a debate concerning the authorization of two full-time clerks in the Pomfret town court. Through retirement and training of a new clerk, we have retained two clerk positions while saving 20 percent of direct personnel costs," he said. "In comparison, the town of Hanover, with a population of less than half of that of Pomfret, has a court clerk taxpayer cost of 39.9 percent greater than that of Pomfret."
Pulci, in his opening statements, also questioned why the town pays the village $8,400 a year to lease the village hall courtroom.
"My opponent has also made the case that the court generates revenue, and he has continuously lobbied the town board to spend this money on his court outside of his budget," Pulci added. "The purpose of the court is not to make money but to dispense justice. If extra money accrues it should be used to offset the existing town expenses and not to finance new ones."
Johnson explained that when court operations outgrew the courtroom at 9 Day St. in town hall, it was time to find a financially sound alternative.
"There was discussion of building a new town hall on Route 60. This would have required a substantial financial commitment by the taxpayers of Pomfret. Instead, Justice Prince and I made an arrangement with the village of Fredonia to lease courtroom space used by the village court," he said. "Recent state requirements as to digital recording of proceedings and courtroom security would have mandated that both the town and the village make extensive renovations to comply."
Pulci was asked about his statement "It's time for a change in the town court."
What exactly could be changed, the questioner asked, and what preparations has he made to bring these changes about and to be a justice.
"I've been preparing my whole life to do this," Pulci said. "I believe four terms in any public office is enough. If you elect me I would hope that you don't elect me more than four times. After a while you tend to be bigger than the job itself and I think that this issue with court clerks and trying to hold the town board in doing things the way you feel they should be done instead of working hand in hand with the town to try and save money is an example of what happens when you've been in position for too long."
"I think an increase in experience over the period of my judicial duties speak for themselves," Johnson rebutted.
After questions from the public were over, Johnson posed a question to Pulci and a real debate began. Johnson questioned the bias that could come along with being affiliated with local law enforcement, noting that Pulci has been endorsed by local, regional, and state law enforcement agencies.
"I have not solicited nor would I accept an endorsement to a police organization, especially one whose officers will be testifying in my court," Johnson said. "My question is how if elected will you deal with this conflict of interest?"
Pulci said he does not consider it a conflict of interest.
"I feel these organizations, the officers who comprise them, know me personally and are simply expressing their confidence in me to perform this job. They know what this job entails and they're confident I can perform the job," he responded.
Pulci volleyed the question back at Johnson.
"You made the same statement four years ago, that you have never asked for or received an endorsement from a police agency ... but I beg to differ with you," he said. "16 years ago when you ran the first time I was president of the Fredonia Police Benevolent Association and you came to me asking for the endorsement of the Fredonia PBA. At that time the Fredonia PBA had never made an endorsement of any office and I told you that, and you practically begged me to ask them to make this endorsement. I went back to them on your behalf and I did ask them to make the endorsement and they did so. So, either your memory is failing you, or you thought we would not remember that you did ask for and receive the endorsement of the local police organization that was directly involved with cases that you were going to be handling."
Johnson rebutted the statement.
"16 years ago I was a retired police officer with no judicial experience, a little like where Mr. Pulci sits now. The difference between the two of us on our experience base is for 15 years prior to that I was a legal instructor with the Sheriff's Academy," Johnson said. "The difference between my asking for police endorsement 16 years ago when I was an officer was that that's the 16 years of experience that I just said that you need for a judge at this point."
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