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Courthouse stench is cause for closure

February 28, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

The spring-like warm temperature was not the reason the front door of Berkeley County Magistrate Court stood wide open Friday, and it was not the reason a bailiff sarcastically told a visitor to stop and smell the fresh breeze.

The breeze he was referring to was a foul odor emanating from the basement of the building, which was so bad the courthouse was closed by Circuit Judge David Sanders.

Magistrate Harry Snow - his basement office overwhelmed by the stench - hauled a table and three chairs outside to perform arraignments on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse.

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"It'll make your eyebrows fall out," Snow said of the smell.

Standing on the courthouse steps waiting for a hearing to begin was defense attorney Harley Wagner. Given the first-ever outdoor arraignment, he proclaimed the day to be one for the history books.

"It's a health hazard," Wagner said. "It's shamefully embarrassing that this is our magistrate courthouse."

Two local plumbers were in the building's basement, running a cable that had a small camera attached to it down a pipe. They refused to comment on possible causes of the odor, saying they'd been called to do a job, not give interviews.

County Commissioner Howard Strauss said the plumbers who were called in a week earlier to examine the building were intimidated by the "circus atmosphere" caused by the media and others. He declined to say whether the same plumbers were at the building Friday.

Although the plumbers submitted a report that identifies the cause of the odor, Strauss declined to provide any information. The report will be discussed next week and a decision will be made on when work will begin to remedy the problem.

"Obviously, the county is putting all of its efforts into solving the problem," he said. "This is not a patch job. This is an effort to find the problem and solve it."

Strauss was upset to hear that Snow was performing arraignments outside, saying there are plenty of other rooms, including two courtrooms in other buildings, where arraignments could have been conducted. Several of the spaces he mentioned are within walking distance of Magistrate Court, including the County Commission meeting room a block away.

He also said nobody from Magistrate Court called until late afternoon to alert them that the smell had reoccurred. The person who finally did call indicated that the media had been notified, Strauss said.

"They called all the media before they contacted the commission office. To me, that really shows how interested they are for us to be over there," he said.

Strauss repeatedly mentioned Snow, who was one of more than a dozen magistrate court employees who unexpectedly showed up at the regularly scheduled commission meeting Feb. 19, asking that something be done about the odor. Strauss called the visit an "ambush" that stopped a public meeting in its tracks.

Three weeks earlier, when magistrates were asked to come to a meeting to discuss the proposed judicial center, only two - Kristy Greer and Sandra Miller - came. That meeting would have been a better venue for Snow and the others to voice their concerns about the smell, Strauss said.

Snow denied Strauss' notion that bringing attention to the odor problem is political. All five magistrates are up for re-election.

"Tell them to have their County Commission meeting down here" to see if it's political, Snow said. He pointed out that Sanders, who ordered the courthouse to close, is not up for re-election.

Magistrate court clerks closed their offices around 2 p.m. and the magistrate assistants left shortly afterward. Magistrate Scott Paugh continued to hold hearings, but eventually moved the proceedings to the rarely used third-floor courtroom where the odor was less noticeable.

As the only magistrate available to do arraignments, Snow said he had to stay.

"I'll be out here 'til 5 o'clock," he said.

The odor reinforces the need for a comprehensive judicial center, which is scheduled to open in a former outlet center sometime in 2006. The center will house all courtrooms and judge's offices, which now are scattered throughout several downtown buildings.

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