Havre Daily News
The nonpartisan city judge race has turned into a rather contentious battle. The prize to the winner: some pressing administrative problems. Challenger Rozan Kerr criticizes incumbent Joyce Perszyk for asking the Havre City Council to pay for another employee and says she will find innovative ways to manage the court's heavy caseload herself. Perszyk said her experience, along with her significant managerial skills, are a good reason to keep her in the job.
Havre voters will pick between the two in Tuesday's city election.
Several challenges face the next judge. A grant to administer the court's community service program for indigent offenders recently ran out because of federal budget cuts, eliminating an option that Perszyk said helped the community as well as the offenders.
The program placed offenders in temporary volunteer positions at service organizations like the Havre Food Bank in place of paying a fine.
Kerr agrees that it's an essential service for the court.
The two propose different solutions
Kerr said if she is elected she would try to administer the program herself.
Perszyk says that's not possible. People who use such programs, according to state guidelines, must be covered by workers' compensation paid for by a fee charged to the participant. Administering the program involves more than scheduling a day to volunteer, Perszyk said. It's a lot of paperwork.
Perszyk said she's been in touch with employees at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation to find out if it has a similar program Havre offenders can participate in.
“I'm going to just keep trying to work with another group,” Perszyk said.
Workload is itself an issue at the court. In June, Perszyk asked the Havre City Council to help pay for a compliance officer in part to run the community service program and help with court administration.
Kerr takes issue with Perszyk's request.
“I believe, if you have a budget, you have to work within it,” Kerr said. “Instead of asking for more employees, I will get in there and work more and see what has to be cut.”
Perszyk said that's unrealistic too. Much of the paperwork the court does is mandated by state law, she said.hours of work each week.
“The night janitor can tell you that,” she added.
Another problem arose this summer, Perszyk said. In late June, the city cancelled a 12-year contract it had with Hill County to fingerprint and book city prisoners. The city cancelled the contract when the county proposed doubling the fee to $10 per inmate.
For a time, city police officers continued to fingerprint at the Hill County Detention Center, but later started to fingerprint at City Hall, Perszyk said.
Around the same time, Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera decided not to use deputies to guard the Justice Court courtroom at the detention center when it was being used for Havre City Court. As a result, the city began transporting prisoners to the courtroom in City Hall, a process Perszyk said is time-consuming and unsafe.
The problems were brought home to her when she attended a judge training session last month, she said. When she returned, Perszyk realized that the eight small microphone stands that sit in the courtroom for monthly Havre City Council meetings could be used as weapons. She had all but one removed. Perszyk also restrung the one microphone cord so it does not lie in reach of a prisoner.
Perszyk said she plans to meet with Havre Police Chief Mike Barthel to discuss some solutions.
Kerr said the problems regarding fingerprinting and prisoner transfer is one for which she has no solution.
“That is something that I feel that when I'm in and able to assess what's going on, that I would address it,” Kerr said. “Joyce is in a better position to see what's happening.”
Both candidates for city judge have administrative experience.
Kerr grew up in Havre and spent 17 years in San Diego. She said she has worked in accounting and has managed several medical offices.
Kerr is now an accounting assistant with Kenneth Kiemele CPA and operates a nail shop in the Atrium Mall.
In 2002 Kerr ran as a Republican candidate for Hill County public administrator, losing to incumbent Carol Bachini-Wood.
Perszyk worked for a decade as an administrative secretary at Northern Montana College and did similar work for a Montana State University Extension office at Fort Assinniboine. She worked at City Court as a clerk for four years before becoming judge in 1997.
Perszyk says partisan politics has intruded in the nonpartisan race. She said it's improper that Kerr is treasurer for Havre Mayor Bob Rice's re-election campaign. Rice is running as a Republican.
Perszyk also questioned a donation Kerr received from Brad Lotton, a Havre contractor who chairs the Hill County Republican Central Committee.
Kerr said her decision to run for City Judge has nothing to do with the mayoral race or partisan politics.
“The treasurer is just a financial position. It's not that I'm helping his campaign. That's an assumption on Joyce's part,” Kerr said.
Dulcy Hubbert, a spokeswoman for the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Office, said City Court candidates can be treasurers in a campaign. Political parties are not allowed to give contributions in nonpartisan races. Lotton's donation to Kerr's campaign is allowed because it was a personal donation, not one made by the party, Hubbert said.
“At this point, she should have probably not been tied to the campaign process,” Perszyk said. “You can't make it look like you support one party or the other.”
Perszyk acknowledged that she has sometimes had a difficult working relationship with Mayor Rice, but said the situation has improved.
Conflicts between Perszyk and Rice were alluded to in an August letter to the editor by Perszyk's daughter, Kari McLaughlin. McLaughlin, who lives in New York City, criticized the mayor for not respecting the three branches of government.
Perszyk said that when Rice became mayor, he did not seem to understand that he did not have control over the court.
“I honestly believe in the very beginning he did not understand the city wasn't above the court,” Perszyk said. “I am not a department head.”
Perszyk said she had no foreknowledge of her daughter's letter and didn't speak to her for a few days after it was published because she was upset.
Kerr insists that if she is city judge and Rice is re-elected Tuesday, he will have no influence over her.