A running battle with vandals who have ravaged the landscaping surrounding the California Mission-style San Fernando County Courthouse has forced Supervising Judge David M. Schacter to come up with creative solutions.
First, he offers defendants sentenced to community service the option of helping maintain the trees and shrubbery at the courthouse and two nearby county parking lots. The alternative is picking up trash alongside freeways.
Second, he has put out a plea to courthouse employees to donate houseplants. "If you have any plants at your home that you are thinking of discarding . . . we would be happy to give them a new life here in San Fernando," Schacter said in memos distributed to courthouse employees in July and October.
And third, he is proposing a Neighborhood Watch-type program in which local residents would keep watch on the courthouse.
"You have to have community involvement," he said. "It might be good to have a meeting with the neighbors to let them know what is happening and to ask them to keep an eye on the place, as well as the school next door." San Fernando Junior High School is across the street from the courthouse.
Schacter said many employees have donated plants, including some, such as Cynthia Vicuna, who donated a plant off her desk.
"I think it's really great that the judge cares enough to make the courthouse pretty," said Vicuna, an office assistant in the court clerk's office.
Schacter said keeping the courthouse surroundings clean and beautiful is important because it commands respect for the judicial system.
"If a person comes to a courthouse that is filthy, they lack respect for the court and for the people who work there and the whole judicial system," he said. "But if people come into a location that is clean and pleasing to the eye, they treat it with respect.
"The more plants around this courthouse complex, the better the area will look, and it does appear to have a positive effect on people coming to use our facilities."
But unfortunately, often as soon as a new plant or tree is planted, it is vandalized.
Schacter said he believes children from the surrounding residential area are responsible for broken tree limbs, trampled plants and broken sprinkler heads and floodlights that are often found Monday mornings.
"We just don't have people who can watch the area on nights and weekends," Schacter said. "They snap in half the trees, walk across the plants and even in the parking lots they tear the tile off the walls."
Low walls topped with tile surround the public parking lots between 3rd and 4th streets. But in many places the tile has been broken off to expose the wood beneath.
Ed Obregon, who is responsible for courthouse maintenance, said he has replaced about 1,000 sprinkler heads in the two years that he has been at the San Fernando facility. He said he has tried sprinkler heads made of different materials, but nothing seems to prevent them from being broken. Ground floodlights that once shone on the landscaping and the building have been removed because bulbs were being shattered too often, and more recently, the entire fixtures were being broken off.
"I don't know what we can do to stop it," Obregon said.
San Fernando City Administrator Mary Strenn--whose office in City Hall and the police station are on the other side of the courthouse complex--said city officials are aware of the problem and are exploring ways to deal with it.
However, Strenn agrees that "clearly the solution is to involve the community."