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City to seek state approval to elect judge

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When she becomes the second full-time magistrate on April 1, City Court Judge Catherine J. Palermo will not have her own courtroom and she still will not have to run for election.

On Monday night, the Watertown City Council agreed that the city should pursue “home rule” legislation requesting that Judge Palermo’s judgeship become an elected position. As the law stands now, it requires only that Judge Palermo be reappointed after her term ends in 2018.

To commence the process, council members would have to approve a local law designating it as an elected position. It would then take the support of the area’s state lawmakers and subsequent approval by both the state Assembly and the Senate to make the change, City Attorney Robert J. Slye said.

“We just can’t say it,” said Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham. “If it’s going to happen, they have to support it.”

Councilwoman Roxanne M. Burns agreed the city should pursue it as a second elected judge “out of fairness.”

Judge Palermo was appointed as the second full-time city judge after the state Legislature passed legislation last year to increase the number of judges across the state. However, the legislation stipulated the second full-time judge as an appointed position.

City Council members appointed Judge Palermo a part-time judge in January 2012, when Judge James C. Harberson retired. She replaced Judge Eugene R. Renzi after he was elected to the full-time position in November 2011.

The subject of adding a second courtroom to accommodate Judge Palermo also came up during the discussion Monday night.

In a surprise visit to City Hall on Monday, state Office of Court Administration officials told the city it will have to come up with different plans to reconfigure the existing first-floor courtroom to create a second one.

Partly to reduce the projected $1.5 million cost, state court officials also indicated they would like to see some changes to the city’s plans. Improving security in City Hall remains a concern for court officials, Mr. Graham said.

The city is required to pay for the renovations, while the state court administration is responsible for judge and court staff salaries.

The mayor said it was not bad news that state court officials requested changes, since it would “slow down” the process of completing the project.

“It gives us time to play it by ear,” he said.

Mr. Graham also admitted that a lot of things will have to be figured out over the next two weeks in how the two judges will share a single courtroom.

In the meantime, the city has found office space for Judge Palermo, who now works just on Fridays, Judge Renzi’s day off, and on Saturdays for arraignments.

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