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Municipal court judge receives salary hike

The Sunnyside City Council approved several measures last week that gives a new look of sorts to the operation of the Sunnyside Municipal Court.

Sunnyside City Manager Bob Stockwell told Council that what was before them was important to adopt to help with how the city operates the municipal court.

"We have been working on this for several months," said Stockwell.

Steven Michels is the current sitting judge in local municipal court. Under the ordinance approved by the Council, Michels will now earn $4,000 per month, an increase from his monthly compensation of $2,857.

Stockwell said the pay increase is justified because the municipal court judge hadn't received a pay raise from 1996 to 2004 while the case load has increased dramatically in the past few years. Stockwell said the state supreme court has also adopted several new regulations increasing the administrative duties of the judge position. Stockwell added that Sunnyside's municipal court judge is not being paid in comparison to other judges in the Valley.

Between 1996 and 2005, there had been no increase in pay for the municipal court judge position. There was a $300 per month increase in pay given earlier this year.

Stockwell said Judge Michels has been putting in an extraordinary amount of time in municipal court. Michels' court, he said, handles a substantial number of cases. Based on 2003 figures, Sunnyside's municipal court handled 3,808 cases. Union Gap had the next closest case load with 2,607 municipal court hearings. Neighboring Grandview had 882 cases that year.

Michels explained to Council that the court load for 2004 increased dramatically. The local court handled 4,968 cases in 2004.

"It looks to me like we are keeping up with that (for 2005)," said Michels.

Under the ordinance, the compensation of the sitting municipal court judge will be reduced accordingly for each hour that a judge pro-tem serves in his absence.

Stockwell explained that under the contract Michels is an independent employee of the city. He is responsible for paying his own federal income tax and other taxes. Michels also does not receive any sick leave, vacation, overtime or compensatory time.

While Michels' role will be to serve as the administrator of the court, the city will still have the final say over court employees.

"They will have dual supervision," said Stockwell of the joint effort between Michels and the city in the supervision of the court.

Stockwell said what drove the new agreement with Michels and changes in the court system is a ruling of the state supreme court that calls for more of a separation of powers between the court system and municipalities. The changes demand more time and responsibility of a municipal court judge in the operation of the court system, Stockwell explained.

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