By David Skolnick
By David Skolnick
Every black elected city official opposes legislation to eliminate a municipal-court judicial seat while the three white city council members, the mayor and state legislators who represent the city — all who are white — support it.
Yet nearly all of them say race isn’t an issue.
“It just happens to be a difference of opinions with blacks and whites on the position, but it’s not a racial issue,” said council President Jamael Tito Brown. “It’s an issue of equity and fairness.”
Elected officials who are black say it isn’t fair to reduce the city court from three judges to two without taking a comprehensive look at overhauling the entire lower-court system in Mahoning County.
They express concern that if the Youngstown seat is eliminated, county court consolidation will go no further.
Officials who are white say getting rid of the seat, which currently is vacant, is only to save taxpayer dollars and that there isn’t a need for the position based on the court’s caseload.
The seat is empty because of the Aug. 1 retirement of Robert A. Douglas Jr., who was the only elected black judge in the county.
“It’s the right thing to do regardless of what color a person is,” said state Rep. Robert F. Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, and the bill’s co-sponsor. “I don’t think [black elected officials will] admit it, but I think it is a black-and-white issue [to them.] There’s no justification for it.”
The Ohio House approved legislation last week to reduce the city’s judges from three to two. The Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony today on the bill, and the full Senate likely will vote on the proposal Wednesday or Thursday.
Youngstown Clerk of Courts Sarah Brown-Clark said she doesn’t oppose court consolidation, but that’s not what’s happening here.
There is no legitimate study that recommends a city municipal court judge should be eliminated now, she said.
A committee of people with knowledge of the court system should be created to determine what a lower-court setup for the county should look like and the best ways to consolidate, Brown-Clark said.
Though statistics show caseload for three judges on the city court is lower than the state average, Brown-Clark said the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Other courts have significantly more traffic cases in which the person cited doesn’t appear in front of a judge. That’s not the case in Youngstown, she said.
A traffic violation can be counted as one case while a lengthy housing-court case with a dozen appear- ances in front of a Youngs-town judge also is considered one case, she said.
A comprehensive consolidation of lower courts could be done in a couple of years with a successor to Judge Douglas serving until the end of 2013, Brown-Clark suggests.
The clerk of courts sharply criticized county Democratic Party Chairman David Betras, a supporter of county court consolidation and elimination of a city municipal court position.
“It happened because a presumptuous attorney wrote a letter to the [Ohio] Supreme Court and the governor,” Brown-Clark said. “An arrogant lawyer misrepresented the facts on [county Democratic] Party stationery. I think it’s outrageous.”
Brown-Clark said, “Betras has done some great things for the party, but this is not one of them.”
Betras called Brown-Clark “a very good public officeholder who represents the people in the city well,” but court consolidation is an issue that is more than 25 years old, and has never before moved forward.
“Change is never easy, but change is going to happen,” he said. “I appreciate she feels I have this ultimate power that I don’t.”
As for the elimination of the Youngstown seat ending court consolidation, Betras said that isn’t the case.
“I honestly think this is the best thing,” he said. “Also, I’ll push very hard to make sure” consolidation continues.
The legislation also led to critical statements between Hagan and Brown, the council president.
Brown contends Hagan said he wouldn’t introduce the bill without the support of city council.
City council voted Oct. 3 by a 4-3 vote on a resolution asking the state Legislature to maintain three court seats in Youngstown. Council’s four black members voted in favor; its three white members opposed it.
“He’s rewriting history,” Hagan said of Brown. “They asked me not to do it, and I said that I’d wait until we got a report” from the county bar association.
“If a white judge had retired, we would have done the same thing.”
Mayor Charles Sammarone voted to reduce the number of judges from three to two while serving on city council in 1986.
“I support it now for the same reason I supported it 26 years ago; it’s a financial issue,” he said.
But he agrees with Councilwoman Annie Gillam, D-1st, about minority representation in the judiciary.
If countywide consolidation occurs, it’s going to be very difficult to elect a black as judge if it’s a vote of the entire county, she said.
Youngstown’s population is 47 percent white and 45.2 percent black with the rest being other minorities, according to the 2010 U.S. census. Blacks have had success citywide winning judicial seats as well as a council presidency and mayor.
The county is 81.1 percent white and 16.1 percent black, the Census states.
No black candidate has ever won a countywide election in Mahoning.
Betras has suggested ways to elect a black candidate more easily such as splitting the lower-court system into two areas with one consisting of Youngstown, Struthers and Campbell, or having the top three vote-getters be elected. “I am sensitive to the loss of the only judicial seat held by an African-American,” Betras said.
“We need diversity in our government,” Gillam said. “Our government should be reflective of our community. A good city is a diverse city. We’re losing a seat that a black person held. If court consolidation is all over the county, it’s going to be extremely difficult to get an African-American candidate elected.”