It was another shining moment for George Deukmejian as friends and family members slipped white sheets off of a polished wall plaque that bears the former Calif. governor’s name and highlighted his accomplishments. At the Nov. 21 dedication ceremony of the Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse in Long Beach, the elder statesman stopped to think about how much it meant to have a building named after him.
“I consider this an honor as great as when I was elected governor,” Deukmejian said in an interview following the exclusive event that included a number of officials including Rep. Alan Lowenthal, State Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster and L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe. “I truly am grateful to all the people that had a role in deciding that my name should be on the building,” the retired politician added, “and, especially, I’m so grateful to the people in Long Beach and Signal Hill who supported me all the years that I was in public office.”
He recalled how much he wanted to see construction for the county’s newest courthouse finished quickly.
“Yeah, I’m not getting any younger, you know?” he said, laughing at his own often-repeated joke. Deukmejian, now 85, has lived in Long Beach for about 58 years.
Construction began in 2011 and finished last August. Located at 275 Magnolia Ave. in Long Beach’s downtown district, the new court building that will serve the South Judicial District of Los Angeles County’s Superior Court opened last September.
A media release offered a few key details about the silver building that boasts 31 courtrooms in 416,000 square feet of court space. The price tag on the design and construction has totaled $339 million. It’s also the first courthouse that has been built in the U.S. using what has been called “performance-based infrastructure, an innovative partnership between the state and the private sector,” according to the release.
This public-private partnership underwent scrutiny in the past year when critics pointed to a report from the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office that suggested that the construction of the courthouse could have been done less expensively.
Its report, entitled “Maximizing State Benefits from Public-Private Partnerships,” explained how the public-private partnership worked in the case of the Long Beach courthouse. The Administrative Office of the Courts entered into a public-private partnership that required the “private developer to finance, design, build, operate, and maintain the Long Beach courthouse over a 35-year period in exchange for payments from the State totaling $2.3 billion.”
The Legislative Analyst’s Office challenged the findings of another report that seemed to favor the partnership. The office itself concluded that the price of the Long Beach courthouse project could have been $160 million less had the project been procured using a traditional method instead of a using this public-private partnership. The report stated that the office operated under different assumptions when it considered issues surrounding tax adjustments, cost overruns, leasing of additional space and the project completion date when it drew its conclusions.
James Otto, who serves as the supervising judge of the Superior Court, acknowledged in an interview that there are critics of the public-private partnership for the Long Beach courthouse, but he also credited this new partnership for making the building a reality. He compared Long Beach’s construction project to the San Bernardino courthouse project, which, he says, the State began to build with public funds around the same time that it began construction for the courthouse in Long Beach. To date, the San Bernardino courthouse has not yet opened. It is scheduled to open in May, Otto said, and by that time, he pointed out, the Long Beach courthouse will have been opened for nearly a year.
“This would still be just a hole in the ground if it wasn’t for the wonderful things that the public-private partnership did,” Otto said, as he described briefly how the process included the involvement of the Administrative Office of the Courts and all of the justice partners in the design. He also emphasized how the building was completed $11 million under-budget and 11 days before a key deadline before the people behind the construction would be penalized if the building was not ready.
“So I think it worked very well,” Otto concluded. “It’s probably not for every public building. I’m afraid there [are] some things out there that will make it tougher to do in the future, but here it worked very well.”
Michael Vicencia, who serves as the assistant supervising judge for the Superior Court, agreed with Otto. He also acknowledged that there are critics who question whether California should have moved forward with a public-private partnership arrangement. While he advocated for close scrutiny of the partnership, the judge still sounded confident when he concluded that the decision is a positive one.
“I think at the end of the day,” Vicencia said, “we are going to find out that it was the right thing to do.”
There are still many things left for the courthouse staff and their leaders to do as they settle into their new building. Otto said they’ve already successfully completed an evacuation drill. They are also getting used to more security protocols in the new building. He added, however, that there are some courtrooms in the building that have not yet opened due to budget cuts.
Vicencia is also looking forward to other changes for his courthouse. He said that his wife is looking to create a docent program to offer tours of the building to organizations and school groups. In January, he will also be taking over the role of supervising judge for the courthouse. Otto said that he will be leaving that post and will be working in the trial court.