Supervisors OK swap for courthouse improvements


San Diego County supervisors on Tuesday approved an agreement to turn over downtown courthouse properties to the state in exchange for a new court facility and improvements to outlying complexes.

The swap stemmed from 2002 legislation that turned control of county court systems to the state of California, something that Walt Ekard, the county’s chief administrative officer, called a “complex process.”

It took years to reach a deal, in part because of disagreements of who would be liable for earthquake insurance. The state has agreed to assume liability for the local courts and will perform a seismic retrofit of the East County Courthouse in El Cajon.

The county also had to overcome some “stubborn’’ state officials, Supervisor Bill Horn said.

Supervisor Greg Cox said despite the complexity of the agreement, there was “more potential for a win for everybody,” including the public, than any issue since he’s been on the board.

The highlight of the deal is a planned 17-story, 71-courtroom complex that will also include the family court system, currently housed several blocks away.

Cox said the project still needs to go through the environmental impact process, and there remains a threat that a state pool of bond money raised for capital improvement will be raided for court operational funds because of budget constraints.

Courts around the state are already forced to close one day per month because of financial problems.

The new building “will improve access to justice” for San Diego County residents, said Kenneth So, the county’s presiding judge.

The downtown courthouse has asbestos problems, is seismically substandard and has security issues, according to Cox.

“Prisoners are paraded down the corridor where you have victims, witnesses and jurors,” Cox said.

The new building will have an underground tunnel from the Central Jail to a courthouse holding tank, he said.

The state has plans to build a facility for the 4th District Court of Appeal, Division 1, which currently leases space in Symphony Towers.

The county and state will share occupancy of the courthouses in El Cajon and Chula Vista, where four additional courtrooms will be built.