Council, judge spar over duties

By Tony Parra: PNT Staff Writer

Portales City Council members verbally sparred with Municipal Court Judge Fred Arnold on Tuesday over the judge position’s salary and office hours.
Councilors discussed increasing the judge’s annual salary from $15,000 to $20,000, but wanted language in the agreement that would require a minimum number of hours for the higher salary.
City councilors approved 7-to-1 the intent to adopt the ordinance.
Arnold’s position is up for election next year, with the new judge taking office on March 8. Any changes in the judge’s salary or work schedule would be effective March 8.
Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega said that to justify an increase in salary, the municipal judge should work at least 20 each week. If that criteria is met, Ortega recommended the salary be $1,666.67 per month, or $20,000 per year. If the judge works less than 20 hours for a week in any month, the salary would be $1,291.67 for that month (an average of $15,500 per year.)
Arnold said he easily works more than the 20 hours required. But, directing comments to Ortega, said, “The issue here is you’re executive and I’m judicial. No branch service can tell another branch service when and how they should operate. It holds no weight.”
Ortega asked city attorneys if the proposed ordinance would have legal standing. City Attorney Stephen Doerr said the judge would have to follow the guidelines set by the council. Doerr said the ordinance should be in place prior to the next election so that the next judge — whether it’s Arnold or someone else — would understand the guidelines.
City Council members also said they want to change the hours the Portales Municipal Court operates.
Currently, the municipal court is open from 7:30 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Portales City Hall hours are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The language in the proposed ordinance reads that the councilors want the court to operate the same hours as city hall.
Councilors said they have been receiving complaints from citizens because the court is not open on Fridays and want to change the hours to better serve the public.
“The court employees put in the same amount of hours (as other city employees),” Arnold said. “We have hours early in the morning and in the evening so that it would be convenient for those who get off of work.”
Arnold said the councilors will receive complaints from citizens on the court’s hours no matter when they are. He said with only two staff members, it is difficult for the court to accommodate everyone.
City Manager Debi Lee said Arnold has come before the City Council for more staffing, but has not received it because of lack of money in the budget.
Arnold questioned the city councilors’ knowing what’s best for the public, claiming they don’t go to the municipal court.
“You’re not considering the function of the court,” Arnold said. “Since I’ve been there I’ve only seen Debi.”
City Councilors Ron Jackson and Mike Miller said they have been to the municipal court and didn’t see Arnold.
Lee said the ordinance will come back to the City Council at its July 19 meeting for adoption. She said amendments could be made to the ordinance between now and then at the request of the city council, manager, mayor or judge.