BERNARDS TWP., NJ _ Bernards Township has officially joined a Bedminster-based municipal court system that will be shared with three other Somerset Hills towns, and hearings on the township's court cases could possibly move to the new location sometime around July 1. 

The Bernards Township Committee officially approved the arrangement on June 1, with the goal of saving taxpayer funds. The shared court system already serves Bedminster, Bernardsville and Peapack-Gladstone.

[Updated] Responding to a question from Todd Edelstein of why the vote wasn't held at the regular Township Committee this past Tuesday, June 9, Mayor James Baldassare said that the township needed to meet before the retirement date of the state assignment judge, or might have had to start the whole process of redoing the agreement over again.

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Municipal Clerk Rhonda Pisano added that the special virtual meeting, held while town hall remains closed due to COVID-19, was not posted in all of the usual places for agenda notices because the township is still in the process of restoring the webpage following an apparent ransomware attack on the Bernards Township network.

A general outline of the agreement, posted in a proposed resolution on the Bernards Township website, states that tax money can be saved by sharing  courtrooms, chambers, equipment, supplies and court personnel for their municipal courts. Even with shared facilities, each town would continue to operate as a separate court, according to the resolution and officials' previous comments.

The shared services agreement should save Bernards Township an estimated $80,000 to $120,000 annually, Township Administrator Pat Monaco said in an email on Monday.

At the June 9 meeting, a number of Township Committee members noted that the process of working on the agreement had been going on for a year or more. 

The wheels were set in motion for the agreement in March 2019, after Bernards Township appointed Judge Katherine Howes as the township's municipal court judge. Howes also is municipal judge in the shared court system that was already served by the three other towns. Negotiations temporarily faltered, but were recently resumed. 

The agreement approved by the Township Committee at a special meeting on June 1 references July 1 as the date for the Bernards Township cases to be heard in Bedminster, Monaco said. However, the township must defer to the assignment judge for the shared court arrangement to take effect, he noted.

Instead of having Bernards municipal court cases all heard on one day, there will be multiple dates per week, Monaco said. "We will need to wait for the combined courts schedule," he added.