Wellington errs in moving to eliminate video arraignments

There shouldn’t be fewer video arraignments, there should be more.

More courts should be availing themselves of the advantages of video arraignments, which are considerable and go beyond saving money.

Instead, Mahoning County Sheriff Randall Wellington announced this week that he intends to discontinue video arraignments for the only judges that have been using them, the judges of Youngstown Municipal Court.

The reason he gives is his inability to free two deputies at 10:30 a.m. each weekday for anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours.

Wellington, of course, has announced that he is not seeking re-election, and perhaps he is emboldened by the prospect of his impending retirement to believe that he can say or do whatever he pleases. One of the things he is saying is that if he had another $1.1 million added to his $14.1 million budget he would be able to recall 23 of his 37 laid-off deputies — and he could then find some way of meeting the demands of video arraignment. Give him a million dollars, and he’ll free up some deputies for the five or 10 hours of the work it takes each week to accommodate video arraignments.

Both Mayor Charles Sammarone and county Commissioner John McNally IV have suggested that Wellington is trying to use the city as a pawn in his budget negotiations with commissioners. As much as he may deny it, that Wellington injected a quid pro quo into the conversation gives their accusation credibility.

Managing personnel is a challenge

Any manager who can’t find a way of meeting the very modest requirements of the video arraignment process isn’t much of a manager.

Judge Elizabeth Kobly of Youngstown Municipal Court suggested that city police officers be permitted to operate the video cameras. Wellington responded that the Fraternal Order of Police collective bargaining units representing city police and county sheriff’s deputies may not agree to allow city police to enter the jail, which is under sheriff’s deputies’ union jurisdiction. Wellington should let the unions make that argument, if they want to. Given that the transporting of prisoners by car from one building to another is inherently more dangerous than transporting them from a cell to a video room within a secure jail, we’d be surprised if the FOP would place safety above a marginal jurisdictional issue.

There is no question that Mahoning County deputies have made concessions in the past and that they are underpaid compared to other men and women in other departments. And it would be best if some or even all of the laid-off personnel could be recalled.

But the county doesn’t have the money.

Wellington picked a penny-wise-and-pound-foolish issue on which to argue his need for a supplemental appropriation when he decided to hold hostage video arraignments.

What he has done, however, is provide an excellent campaign issue on which voters can question the men who are vying to succeed him. How will the next sheriff choose to balance the realities of his budget with the needs of the community, as well as the safety not only of his deputies, but of other police officers and court personnel?

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