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Circuit clerk wants fireproof vault in new judicial center

August 16, 2006|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County Circuit Clerk Virginia M. Sine believes the new judicial center building set to open in October fails to comply with West Virginia code, which stipulates "offices be fireproof or be furnished with fireproof vaults or safes."

"We don't want to be another Berkeley Springs," Sine said Monday, referring to the fire that ravaged Morgan County's courthouse last week.

"I have preached from day one - I need a vault."

Berkeley County circuit court records, in fact, haven't been kept in a secure vault since Sine's office was moved several years ago to the basement of a former bank building at 110 W. King St., next to the Berkeley County Courthouse, she said.

County officials do not have the combination to the bank vault and can't shut the door, but Sine said she was told the basement was fireproof.

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"I could be totally wrong (about the code)," Sine said. "We'll see how the judge interprets it," she added, noting her intention to speak with 23rd Judicial Circuit judge David H. Sanders about the matter.

Berkeley County Commissioner Howard L. Strauss acknowledged Tuesday that the first phase of the judicial center - known as the Berkeley building of the former Blue Ridge Outlets complex - did not include a vault for storage of court records.

But he noted the project architect - DMJM Design - planned the renovation to meet or exceed state fire and building codes. Strauss also noted that a vault is an option being explored for the second phase of the project in the adjoining Crawford building of the judicial center.

"Realistically, you're looking at the best fire protection that's available," said Strauss, referring to the building's sprinkler system.

In response to an inquiry from Strauss, DMJM architect Matthew Hjermstad said in an e-mail Tuesday that adoption records in the new building would be kept in a locked cabinet, in a locked filing room, which is further secured in the Circuit Clerk's locked suite.

"In other words, there are three levels of locking just within the Clerk of the Circuit Court suite," Hjermstad noted. "Additionally, security measures, such as glass breaks, cameras and court security staff are also provided."

Hjermstad did not mention the building's sprinkling system, which Sine fears could ultimately be problematic for certain records prepared in ink.

Steven D. Canterbury, administrative director of the Supreme Court of Appeals, said Tuesday that nothing prevents the high court from intervening to make sure records are appropriately stored.

While crediting Sine for being concerned, he also noted the state's effort to put a unified court record system in place that he said will ultimately make concerns about record storage "moot."

Canterbury said he was under the impression that Berkeley County leaders were doing a "pretty good job" with the judicial center project, but could not immediately clarify whether the record-storage plan for the building complied with statute.

According to W.Va. code section 7-3-2, "All courthouses, jails and offices ... shall be built of stone and brick or stone or brick, or other equally fireproof materials, and the offices shall be fireproof or be furnished with fireproof vaults or safes."

Strauss said county leaders provided the judicial center design plans to the state Supreme Court of Appeals for review and noted that the new building will easily surpass current storage conditions, provide additional levels of protection and more than twice the amount of space.

"I would hate to ask if we are currently in compliance," Strauss said.

Strauss also noted all of the building's stakeholders, including Sine, were apprised of the plans for the new judicial center.

"Where was she at in the beginning?" Strauss said.

Sine contends she provided the commission with a copy of the state code that references the vault requirement, but her concerns were never addressed.

"The vault ... is an old-fashioned idea," Strauss said.

Sine disagreed, noting the vault in Morgan County's now burned-out courthouse proved to be invaluable.

"They were lucky, their (records) were in a vault," Sine said.

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