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New prosecutor seeks less fractured offices

Just a month into his term as Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Gregg L. Bernstein already wants out — out of his current office space, that is.

Bernstein complained about his agency’s current digs during his first report to the Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council on Wednesday afternoon, calling the dispersal of his prosecutors on different floors of downtown courthouses and elsewhere “a huge issue.”

“You just cannot be effective if you’re not in a contiguous space,” Bernstein said.

Proper coordination with the other member organizations of the CJCC, like the Baltimore Police Department and the U.S. Attorney’s office, which were among Bernstein’s stated goals during his campaign last summer, “is just not going to happen until we resolve this issue,” Bernstein said.

Asked about his plans after the meeting, Bernstein said he would like to move out of the aging downtown courthouses entirely to either government or private space nearby.

“I do not want to be in it,” he said of the 111-year-old Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse. “We’re looking at where there’s vacant space.”

Bernstein acknowledged that moving his 430-employee agency would be no small task, especially because its budget does not provide for rent. But Bernstein says “budget issues” can be solved and he’s already spoken with the mayor’s and governor’s offices about possible funding and space.

“I’m not giving up and I’ve got some ideas,” Bernstein said.

In an e-mail, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O’Malley said talks on the topic are preliminary and “there aren’t any solid plans at this point.” Reached later Wednesday afternoon, Bernstein’s spokesman said “there’s no timeline” for the move right now.

“But it’s a top priority that he’s spending a lot of time on because it’s vital to the effectiveness of the office,” Mark Cheshire, the spokesman, said.

During his remarks, Bernstein repeated his intention to restructure the agency and move toward a community-based prosecution model where assistant state’s attorneys are based in the neighborhoods whose crime they prosecute.

Bernstein’s search for a new space for his office would seem to come at fortuitous time for prospective renters in downtown Baltimore. According to court papers filed by downtown property owners in their recent suit over the proposed $1.5 billion redevelopment of State Center, there is more than 2 million square feet available in office buildings in the city’s central business district alone — roughly 25 percent of the total, the property owners claim.

Cheshire said it is too early in the process to discuss with whom in the private sector Bernstein has spoken about leasing space.

Moving the prosecutor’s office out of the courthouse to a contiguous space is not a new idea, according to Baltimore City Circuit Administrative Judge Marcella Holland, who answered a reporter’s questions through her secretary.

“Other state’s attorneys have wanted to move their people to one building, and it’s their prerogative,” said the secretary, who did not want her name used.

Patricia C. Jessamy, who was the city’s top prosecutor from 1995 until losing narrowly to Bernstein in September’s Democratic primary election, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The state’s attorney’s office has office space on seven floors of the two Calvert Street courthouse buildings, floors they share with judges and holding areas for defendants; at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center on Gay Street; in the Equitable Building and Blaustein Building, both along Fayette Street near the Mitchell courthouse; and in three district court buildings, according to Cheshire.

Baltimore City Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr., who has employees in three different buildings, empathizes with Bernstein’s plight, “difficulties” he said he and his staff have had to “live with” for years.

“What he said points out more that we need a new courthouse,” Conaway said Wednesday. “We desperately need a courthouse.”

Courthouse officials and workers have been calling for a new courthouse for years, including at a CJCC meeting in September 2009 when Holland said everyone agreed the current buildings are “absolutely terrible.” She spoke just before a representative from a California consultancy hired by the Maryland Stadium Authority to conduct a feasibility study concerning the possibility of a new building. That feasibility study was supposed to be published last spring.

“The bad news is it’s delayed it again,” Gary McGuiggan, a project executive at the Maryland Stadium Authority, said in early January. “We’re probably looking at February or March for the release of the final report.”

Bernstein isn’t relying on plans for a new courthouse to come to fruition.

“I’m moving separately,” he said.