Columbus city council votes to shut down municipal court in favor of returning to joint court format

COLUMBUS, Wis. — Getting a speeding or parking ticket in your own community isn’t any fun, but if you want to fight it, you don’t have to go far. People in a Columbia County city, though, will lose that option next year.

In less than an hour Thursday night, the Columbus City Council decided it was time to shut down its municipal court — a move that felt swift to the man who oversees it.

“I was notified Tuesday of tonight’s meeting,” Judge Edwin Schellin said at Thursday’s special city council meeting.  

Judge Schellin has been in that position since 2018, but at the end of his term in April his court will be gone.

“There’s a significant value in having a local municipal court run as an alternative to criminal and juvenile court,” he said. “Local matters are addressed locally by someone that’s elected locally; the local people have an input into the nature of that court.”

To Columbus city leaders, it’s a matter of dollars and cents. 

“We have a lot of backlog infrastructure needs, we have a lot of building needs and we’re trying to achieve a sustainable funding mechanism over time,” City Administrator Kyle Ellefson said, speaking to News 3 Now before the meeting.  

Columbus taxpayers provide between $28,476 and $50,340 a year for the court, which oversees things like speeding tickets and other violations. 

According to aldermen, the court was supposed to be financially self-sufficient when it was established in 2019.  

The most recent audit reported the court was operating at a $23,212 loss – which is why Ellefson believes returning to a joint court as it had with Randolph before 2018 would be more sustainable.  

“It’s [the trip is] about, like, going to Walmart,” he said, “and so for the people that would like to be heard, that would be an additional expense on them.” 

With this option, Ellefson said, once Schellin’s term ended in 2023 residents in all the municipalities represented in the joint court would be able to vote on the next judge, be it from Columbus or elsewhere.  

But the president of the Wisconsin Municipal Judges Association sees a potentially more expensive and cumbersome consequence to Thursday’s vote.   

Dick Ginkowski, currently the municipal judge in Pleasant Prairie, says not having a municipal court could mean sending minor citation cases to circuit court in a place like Portage — 30 miles away, where fees go up. 

“If things like this happen, it’s not just Columbus, there are other communities in which things like this are happening where they are looking at municipal courts more on the revenue side than on the justice side,” Ginkowski told News 3 Now Wednesday. 

At Thursday’s meeting, though, Ellefson was quick to push back against that notion. “I’m not sure why they’re focused on the circuit court. That’s the worst option and not one we’re considering.”  

The judges brought up police officers having to take time away from duty to attend court at the county seat, to which Ellefson said, according to the Columbus Police Chief, the officers are not pulled from patrol to go to court, their patrol is staffed by someone else.

Columbus has until April to rejoin the Eastern Columbia County Joint Municipal Court or partner with another neighboring city.