Of all the comments surrounding the highly contentious elimination of a judgeship in the Youngstown Municipal Court, the one that cut to the quick came from a state legislator — from Cleveland.
Sen. Mike Skindell, a Democrat, seemed to suggest that the spendthrift members of the municipal court should watch their pennies as they get used to operating with two judges.
“The Supreme Court is clear that the workload is such in that court that two existing judges and one existing magistrate can pick up the workload without any difficulty,” Skindell said, prior to a vote Wednesday in the Senate on a bill that eliminated the third judgeship. “ … 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.”
That a lawmaker from Cleveland should presume to preach fiscal discipline to our local officials (all Democrats) should cause those in the Youngstown court system to bow their heads in shame.
Skindell is right, of course.
As has been previously pointed out in this space, the judges of the municipal court and the clerk of courts have been spending money like it’s going out of style.
Consider the travel expenses for the past two years of Clerk Sarah Brown Clark, one of the most vociferous opponents of the initiative to eliminate the judgeship:
In 2011, she attended five conferences — one each in Las Vegas (“It’s Vegas, Baby”), Baltimore, New Orleans and two in Columbus.
The Vegas trip from July 9-15 cost $2,020.10: $495 registration fee; $1,525.10 for travel, hotel, meals and other expenses. The Baltimore conference cost $1,965.50; New Orleans, $1,918.41; the two conferences in Columbus cost $1,276.22.
The grand total was $7,180.23.
This year, Brown Clark has spent $7,288.19 attending eight conferences in Orlando (home of Mickey and Minnie Mouse), Minneapolis, Omaha, Washington, D.C., and Columbus four times.
A spreadsheet of the annual appropriation shows the clerk of courts office received more than $1.87 million from the city this year, most of it going for wages and benefits, such as pensions and health insurance. Mahoning County and the state of Ohio also supplement Brown Clark’s compensation package that adds up to an unjustifiable $119,975 a year.
Why the trip to Vegas? Why, indeed.
The three-judge court cost the city’s operating fund more than $2 million this year, with most of the money dedicated to payroll — salaries and benefits. The six-figure compensation for the judges is bolstered with state and county funds.
Robert Milich and Elizabeth Kobly remain on the bench, while Robert A. Douglas Jr. retired on Aug. 1. The position Douglas vacated is the one that the Republican-led General Assembly has eliminated.
Youngstown cannot afford to keep feeding the beast that is the court system. The city’s population is declining, the tax base is stagnant, at best, there is a potential loss of $500,000 a year in income tax revenue should the U.S. Postal Service eliminate its distribution center, and the reduction in state dollars for local government operations will continue.
State Sen. Skindell of Cleveland was absolutely right in his assessment of the situation.
Thus, the question: Will Mayor Charles Sammarone be able to persuade city council that funding for the two-judge court and the clerk of courts office must be cut?
As a first step, there should be a moratorium on excessive travel.
There are 50 employees in the clerk of courts office and 31 in the municipal court. Are they all needed?
Not with the court’s caseload. Indeed, there are cities in Ohio that have only one municipal judge handling more cases than Milich and Kobly will have to manage individually.
The elimination of the judgeship opens the door to the reorganization of the court system in Mahoning County below the common pleas level.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is advocating this change.