By Bertram de Souza
A half century ago, when Youngstown was justifiably the center of the Mahoning Valley universe, when most residents had jobs and paid income tax and when public service was a higher calling (as opposed to what it is today), special legislation was enacted by the Ohio General Assembly to exempt the city from a state law that establishes the number of municipal court judges through a population-based formula.
As a result of the exemption, which has remained intact despite Youngstown’s precipitous decline, there are three judges sitting in the municipal court — each earning a mind-boggling $114,100 a year. The court also has support staff that is larger than during the city’s heyday.
The Youngstown Municipal Court today cannot be sustained.
A new one is needed — but not in the way judges Robert A. Douglas Jr., Robert Milich and Elizabeth Kobly envision it. Indeed, Douglas, Milich and Kobly are demanding that Mayor Jay Williams and city council provide them with “suitable facilities” and they want to move posthaste. The threat in a journal entry that the judges filed is clear: If you, mayor and council, don’t give us what we want — a facility of at least 34,000 square feet — we’ll hold you in contempt.
Williams, who is seeking re-election this year, should respond, but not by succumbing to the pressure from the judges.
The mayor should announce that the city of Youngstown, which is facing a $3 million budget shortfall, can no longer afford the luxury of a municipal court with three full-time judges pulling down more money that the average family of four earns. He should let it be known that a decision on a new court facility is being put on hold while he pursues legislation in the General Assembly to eliminate one of the judgeships.
The mayor can easily justify such a move. If Youngstown were not exempted from the state law that provides the formula for determining the number of judges, the city would have only two judges — and even that number could be challenged given that the population is barely 80,000. The population census in 2010 is likely to find that Youngstown has shrunk to the mid-70,000 level.
Under the state formula, a city with a population of up to 100,000 is eligible for one (1) judgeship. An additional 70,000 people makes the city eligible for a second judgeship. And 70,000 above that gives the city a third.
It is clear that even two judges in the Youngstown Municipal Court would be difficult to justify.
There is precedence for the mayor seeking to reduce the number of judges. In 1986, then Mayor Patrick J. Ungaro and city council, confronting a similar budgetary collapse as today, had a bill introduced in the General Assembly to eliminate one position.
However, the effort was short-circuited by then House Speaker Vernal Riffe after he was lobbied by the black community in Youngstown. Black leaders did not want the position eliminated because they anticipated that retiring Judge Lloyd Haynes, a black, would be replaced by another black. However, Andrew Polovischak won the election.
Five years later, in 1991, then Youngstown Clerk of Courts Rosemary Durkin warned that she would use her political influence with Riffe and other Democratic legislators in Columbus to eliminate one of the judgeships if city council failed to act to preserve the status of the clerk.
Because Youngstown’s population had dropped below 100,000 in the 1990 census, the clerk of courts position went from being filled by election to appointment by the judges. Durkin, whose term was expiring in December 1993 did not want the judges to have the power of appointment. She argued that a provision in the state law permitted city council to declare Youngstown’s population to be 100,000, thereby ensuring that the voters of the city continued to have a say.
City council members, aware of her threat against the judges, gave in to her demands.
The history of the Youngstown Municipal Court is replete with political game-playing.
The time has come for Mayor Williams and city council to step in and not only push for the elimination of one judgeship, but also a change in the status of the clerk of courts.