MISSOULA — Once the seat of community debate, City Council chambers in Missoula will serve as a new courtroom for municipal court, at least while renovations are made to City Hall.
The city this week approved a roughly $94,000 contract with AVI Systems to install new technology in council chambers, allowing it to serve as a temporary courtroom. Construction on a third courtroom in City Hall is expected to begin in roughly six weeks.
Once it opens, council chambers will return to their intended use.
“Phase one of the project involves a retrofit of council chambers on Pine Street, updating that room for use as a full-time, temporary courtroom until construction is complete on the new third courtroom in City Hall,” court administrator Tina Reinicke told council members this week.
The second phase of the project includes the removal and reuse of some electronic equipment used in the council chambers retrofit. It also includes the instillation of an integrated audio-visual system and hearing assist audio-detector for the new courtroom in City Hall.
Reinicke said the audio-visual system will enable prosecutors to present evidence to a judge, jury and attendees. It also permits virtual testimony when needed.
“The hearing-assist system brings the court in compliance with ADA laws, and it allows for a more representative jury pool,” Reinicke said. “The audio recording system allows for the maintenance, duplication and retrieval of the courtroom audio, which is part of the legal requirement in state law.”
A third courtroom became necessary after the 2021 Legislature amended state laws requiring the election – not the appointment – of municipal court judges. Missoula had one judge and two appointed part-time judges prior to the Legislature.
In November, Missoula voters elected three municipal court judges, but the city has just two municipal courtrooms, making a third courtroom necessary before the new year.
The shuffling of courtrooms may also demonstrate the challenges faced by both the city and county in finding the space needed to meet basic city functions as Missoula grows.
The two governments are looking to acquire the vacant downtown federal building and converting the facility into a central hub of government and services. Doing so would meet their spacial needs and allow them to sell their old properties for redevelopment.
But that effort could take years to manifest, leaving the city to make do with the space it currently has. The new courtroom will include the latest technology.
“We’ve taken a long and well-planned approach in implementing these systems,” Reinicke said. “We have found AVI Systems to be high-end, and we’re very happy with them.”
Reinicke said the projected technology cost of $93,800 is higher than initially planned, but still falls within the projected courtroom construction budget of $515,000.