By David Skolnick
and Marc kovac
A proposal to eliminate a seat on the Youngstown Municipal Court, first supported by city council in 1986, is on its way to the governor’s office for approval.
The Ohio Senate approved legislation Wednesday by a vote of 26-6 to reduce the number of Youngstown judges from three to two.
Because of a Senate amendment to also eliminate the mayor’s court of a small community near Cleveland with a population of less than 100, the House has to vote to concur. It will do that today, the final day of this year’s legislative session.
The House voted 76-12 last week in favor of eliminating a judicial seat on the city’s municipal court bench.
“From 28 years ago, it’s always been about what the city can afford,” said Youngstown Mayor Charles Sammarone, who was a city councilman when the legislative body voted in support of a resolution to reduce the number of judges.
“Everybody’s got to do more with less,” Sammarone said. “To me, it’s about finances and what the city can afford.”
The legislative action ends the Statehouse debate on the consolidation plan, which prompted strong statements from city officials and others who opposed the move.
Support to eliminate the seat came from elected white officials while every elected black official in Youngstown opposed it, saying a detailed evaluation of Mahoning County’s lower-court system was needed before getting rid of this one seat.
But nearly all of them said race wasn’t an issue in the decision.
The bill eliminates the seat vacated Aug. 1 with the retirement of Robert A. Douglas Jr., who was the only elected black judge in the county.
“I’m trying to not let emotion and damaging possible relationships at home get in the way of data and facts,” said state Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd. “... There’s no other city with similar population that has three municipal judges.”
Councilwoman Annie Gillam, D-1st, who opposed eliminating the position, said she was at least glad that six state senators agreed with her.
State Rep. Robert F. Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, who co-sponsored the bill in the Ohio House, said that “sometimes it became personal, but it was the right thing to do. I look forward to working with others to see what else needs to be done to make the county’s lower-court system more efficient.”
County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras, an attorney who’s been a longtime supporter of lower-court consolidation, said, “I have said all along that we need to totally reconfigure the justice system below the common pleas level. Judge Douglas’ retirement provided us with the impetus to get the long-stalled ball rolling. I don’t believe anyone involved in the process intends to allow it to grind to a halt again.”
According to statistics compiled by the Ohio Supreme Court, there were 13,000-plus criminal, civil and traffic cases before the court last year, amounting to 4,421 per judge.
That’s less than half the statewide average of 9,629 cases.
With two judges, the average would be about 6,600 cases.
Proponents of the consolidation believe the court can complete its tasks with two judges, saving the city money in the process.
According to a fiscal analysis by the state’s Legislative Service Commission, the change will save the city more than $73,000 and the state nearly $64,000 annually in salary and related payroll expenses.
But opponents wanted lawmakers to postpone action for a year, prompting Gov, John Kasich to appoint a replacement for Judge Douglas and continuing the three-judge structure while work continued on a reorganization plan.
No lawmakers spoke in opposition to the bill during Wednesday’s floor debate.
State Sen. Mike Skindell, a Democrat from the Cleveland area, said it was not the intent of groups that favor the consolidation to enable the local court to appoint additional magistrates.
“The Supreme Court is clear that the workload is such in that court that the two existing judges and one existing magistrate can pick up the workload without any difficulty,” Skindell said. “... I hope and I challenge the legislators from the Mahoning Valley that if the court would go around and appoint a magistrate that you call the court out on that issue and be monitors of this bill, because that’s how you achieve your goals of efficiency and cost savings.”