'Justice rolls down like waters'

Courthouse roof needs replaced

By John S. Hausman

MUSKEGON, Mich. (AP) — “Let justice roll down like waters,” the Old Testament prophet said.

This isn’t what he meant.

Off and on for more than a month, the ceiling of Muskegon County 14th Circuit Judge Timothy G. Hicks’ courtroom has been leaking big, fairly rapid drops of brown water. Hicks’s courtroom is on the top floor of the Michael E. Kobza Hall of Justice.

Also leaking have been the ceilings above the judge’s chambers, his outer office, a nearby conference room, parts of the next-door Muskegon County Sheriff’s Office, and even Muskegon County Prosecutor Tony Tague’s office - located one flight of stairs down on the fifth floor.

Repeated patches on the courthouse roof have failed to stop the leaks. After a break of a couple weeks, they recently came back with a vengeance following light overnight rain.
The upshot: Muskegon County officials are scrambling to prepare an unscheduled replacement of the entire roof for a cost estimated at roughly $200,000.

The leaks have been most disruptive in Hicks’s courtroom. Several times in recent weeks, court proceedings - even jury instructions - have been interrupted by big plops of water in the middle of the action.

“I think I was the first one to discover it,” said Matt Roberts, a senior assistant county prosecutor.

It was early August, he recalls.

“I was reading the information during a (guilty) plea and it dripped right on my head,” Roberts said.

The judge had his own spirit-dampening experience not long after.

“I was reading jury instructions,” Hicks recalled.

He looked up to make eye contact with jurors and was startled to see water dripping just a foot or two in front of his face onto a ledge below him.

County public works officials quickly called in a roofing contractor to make patches, but it wasn’t enough. They say a big fix is necessary.

“The plan is to replace the roof, obviously as soon as possible,” Muskegon County Public Works Director John Warner said. “We hope to get it done this fall.”

Warner said he’s working to get specifications for the project now. The county has gotten one price quote of $200,000 and is waiting for a quote from a second contractor, he said.
Because the courtroom ceiling was leaking from several places, county workers drilled a hole in one spot Wednesday to confine it to one limited area.

Luckily, perhaps, Hicks’s court docket this week is light - just a few proceedings Wednesday, with the rest of the week taken up with a judges’ conference.

Warner said the water itself shouldn’t be hazardous despite the brown color, which comes from oozing through roofing material. “Certainly I wouldn’t go drink it, but body contact (from cleaning it up) isn’t dangerous,” Warner said.

He also believes there are no other health or safety hazards from the leaky roof -- such as the possibility of shorted wiring, mold formation, release of fibers from asbestos pipe wrap, or total ceiling collapse.

But, as he acknowledged about the possibility of collapse, “there’s never a guarantee.”

“It’s top of the priority list,” Warner said of the roof replacement. “Nothing good comes of letting it go.”