Calling the Courthouse? Good Luck With That

    It was a Friday in June, the end of a second and final day in a criminal trial in East Hampton Justice Court. It had been a long day. The courthouse was now closed, except for the courtroom, where Justice Lisa Rana was presiding. A witness was being cross-examined.

    A phone near the justice began to ring. She disconnected the call, sending it into voicemail. It rang again. Again she disconnected it. When it rang a third time, she picked up the phone and pulled out the wire connecting it to the wall.

    “I hate this phone system,” she was heard to say.

    Justice Rana’s opinion of the phone system now in place at the courthouse is shared by the entire staff, as well as her fellow justice, Catherine Cahill.

    “This is not like other offices in the town,” Justice Cahill said last week. “People’s freedom hangs in the balance.” A missed phone call in a criminal case can mean someone is arrested and goes to jail.
    And phone calls are missed, in large numbers, daily.

    The problem is routing. Previously, callers would dial 324-4134 and get simple prompts offering such information as the court’s address and hours, as well as a connection to individual court clerks, each of whom is responsible for different areas of the judicial system.

    That automated information was an invaluable tool, said Jennifer Anderson, Justice Cahill’s court clerk. With budget cutbacks and tight staffing, she said, it meant that clerks did not have to stop what they were doing and answer routine questions.

    The phones worked very well for the courthouse. For one thing, the clerks had caller I.D., an important feature when you are taking calls from the police, the district attorney’s office, and defense attorneys.

    Then a switch was pulled. The goal, apparently, was to get callers to connect to the court through the town’s phone system, by dialing 324-4141. Now, the caller listens to a long series of prompts; “Justice Court” is the eighth.

    Press 8, and you are connected to the old phone number, which now goes to one phone — Nicole Shipman’s. Ms. Shipman, who handles the zoning court calendar, now spends much of her day routing phone calls, much like a Bell Telephone operator from the 1930s.

    Adding to the volume she has to handle is the fact that the police, attorneys, and people who work with the court on a regular basis are still calling the old number, because, inexplicably, East Hampton Town’s own Web site still lists that number as the one to call for the court.

    What happens to the calls Ms. Shipman misses? Sometimes they go to another clerk’s phone. More often, they go someplace else — “into LaLa Land,” said one clerk, who, like all the others except for Ms. Anderson, was unwilling to talk on the record, fearful of retribution.

    Nobody told the clerks what to expect when the changeover was made. They kept checking their individual voicemail to no avail — all the messages, unrouted, were dropping into a general box.

    By the time the clerks realized what was happening, there were 180 messages to go through. Even now, they said, with frequent checking, messages still pile up, sometimes meant for other government offices.

    According to Justice Cahill, when one of the clerks asked the town’s I.T. man in charge, Bob Pease, if they could return to the old system they had first used with the new phones, “Bob was told he couldn’t put it back.”

    “What do they want people to do?” Justice Cahill asked. “Call the main line. You can’t get to Jen [Ms. Anderson], you can’t get to Michelle [Field, Justice Lisa Rana’s clerk], you can’t get to Emily [Grunewald, a long-time clerk].

    Repeated calls by The Star to Mr. Pease Monday and Tuesday went unanswered.

    Ms. Anderson quoted the old bromide, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But the system is broken, according to the entire courthouse staff, who are calling for it to be fixed. Whether that call gets through is the question.