Gig Harbor’s municipal court keeps its doors open after city hires Zenon Olbertz as new judge

Zenon Olbertz is the new municipal court judge for Gig Harbor.
Zenon Olbertz is the new municipal court judge for Gig Harbor.

Judge Zenon Olbertz wanted to wind down his private attorney practice after decades of work in Pierce County, which has left him the opportunity to serve as the new judge for Gig Harbor’s municipal court.

Olbertz has been serving the court for over three months now, and is busier than he expected.

“We are a busy municipal court,” Olbertz said. “We are busier some Wednesdays more than others. And then we have the traffic infraction court that meets once a month.”

Olbertz began serving after the previous Gig Harbor City Council chose not to renew Judge Michael Dunn’s contract.

City overpaid previous judge, audit found

The court’s rate for pro tem judges was $60 an hour. The auditor’s office said it identified invoices from substitute judges during 2015 and 2016 totaling $6,306 the city paid while Dunn was absent from the court for personal reasons. Gig Harbor Interim City Administrator David Rodenbach said the city has been repaid by Dunn after the audit findings.

“(Dunn) was the judge for Gig Harbor for at least 18 or 19 years,” Rodenbach said. “He paid (the payments) back. He even paid more.” Rodenbach, who was not serving as the interim city administrator during the audit, said the past administration looked back through payment records and found the city had paid more than the initial $6,306 found by the state audit.

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“I know there was an investigation,” Rodenbach said. “We hired an outside firm who looked into the case and they found no fault or purposeful wrongdoing.”

According to the city's records, Dunn made two payments to the city which added to the general fund. The first payment of $2,705 was made on Feb. 13, 2017 and a second payment of $7,779.63 was made on April 26, 2017 — over $10,000 in repayments.

Olbertz hiring keeps city court open

At the beginning of the year, Olbertz was appointed by the council to serve the role of the municipal court judge after letting Dunn’s contract expire.

“I wasn’t privy to the situation before me,” Olbertz said. “I was a pro tem for Gig Harbor years ago. I also worked as a pro tem judge in Milton and Fife.”

Olbertz, who’s lived in Gig Harbor since 1980, said he heard about the opening at the court and felt he could serve the role well.

“I thought this would be a good opportunity,” Olbertz said. “I’ve seen how the city has grown and I hoped being local would help me impart knowledge to these cases.”

The Gig Harbor City Council recently voted to keep the municipal court open after a discussion with Pierce County to contract with its court system was started by the previous administration.

“Going back a year, there was a lot of concern about our municipal court,” councilman Michael Perrow told the council during the Feb. 12 regular meeting. “We had a judge who had been found to have over-billed the city for 17 years, we had heard the school district hadn’t had any (audit) findings in 10 years while the court had multiple findings in just the last few years regarding all sorts of things. With a judge who was not cooperative, we found the only way to deal with it was to contract out our court services."

Perrow said then-mayor Jill Guernsey and then-city administrator Ron Williams kept working with Pierce County to contract out cases while the city council decided the fate of the court. Perrow said once the city hired Olbertz to serve as the court’s judge, they could see a positive change in how cases were handled.

"He's a great guy and he’s really eager to work with our staff, finance department and other branches in the city,” Perrow said to the council. “And he’s not really concerned with holding a lot of power over the third branch of government.”

Even though the city believed they made a smart move hiring Olbertz, they were still unsure if they wanted to keep the court opened. The newly elected city council and mayor met during a council retreat and came to a consensus to keep the court.

“The court does not make money,” Perrow said. “It loses money. But I believe with Judge Olbertz … and others all working together we can achieve efficiencies and bring the cost down.”

The council voted unanimously to keep the municipal court functioning.

City's growth adds more cases

The Gig Harbor municipal court meets every Wednesday and serves anyone who has been charged with a misdemeanor while in Gig Harbor's city limits.

Olbertz said although he was surprised by the number of cases he takes on each week, he believes it’s a symptom of a growing city.

“Most of the people who come through are not fundamentally bad people,” Olbertz said. “A lot of health issues and other issues that have caused them to run afoul. I am here to help point them in the right direction.”

Olbertz has lived in Gig Harbor since he started his private practice as an attorney. He grew up in the area and graduated with a degree in economics from Pacific Lutheran University before obtaining his law degree in 1978. After graduating law school, he served as a prosecutor in Thurston County before working at a larger firm in Kitsap County. He served in Kitsap until he opened his own practice in Tacoma in 1992.

Olbertz said the biggest difference for him serving as a judge versus as a lawyer is that he is able to assist those who find themselves in bad situations whether it’s because of drug addiction, a lack of education or just poor choices because he is impartial to the cases brought before him.

“I try to do what I think is appropriate given the circumstances,” he said. “I am trying to help the person before they end up in higher court.”

Olbertz said growth, location and population have an affect on the type of cases he sees in the municipal court.

“The ones that surprise me are the shoplifting,” he said. “I had never really analyzed the nature of all the cases. But I hope that being local will help me impart a decision.”