While the vacant Youngstown Municipal Court judgeship can only be eliminated through an act of the Ohio General Assembly, Mayor Charles Sammarone has the power of the purse to move things along.
On Monday, state Reps. Robert Hagan, D-Youngstown, and Ron Gerberry, D-Austintown, announced they are sponsoring legislation to reduce the number of judges in the municipal court from three to two.
But given that the legislative process is susceptible to special interest pressure, the opponents of the elimination of the judgeship could derail the Hagan-Gerberry legislation. That is why mayoral action is necessary.
When Sammarone presents the 2013 operating budget to city council in the next several weeks, he should reduce funding for the municipal court by the amount allocated to the judgeship that had been held by Robert A. Douglas Jr. until he retired in August.
The remaining two municipal court judges, Robert Milich and Elizabeth Kobly, would receive what the city spent toward their salaries and benefits, which add up to more than $150,000 a year each. Mahoning County and state governments also contribute to their salaries and to some of their benefits.
The city’s total outlay for the Youngstown Municipal Court is $2,055,000. There were 50 employees in the court before Douglas retired.
The spending for the clerk of courts office is $1,871,000. There are 31 employees in the office.
Let us not forget that the three-judge court and the large clerk of courts operation were in place when the city of Youngstown’s population topped 100,000 and the caseload was among the highest in the state in comparable cities.
But today, the city’s population is straining to hit 66,000 and the caseload is one of the smallest.
There is no justification for the current court system. Elimination of one of the three judgeships and a reduction in the operation of the clerk of courts office — this can also be accomplished through a reduction in city funding — is a first step in what we have long advocated: The elimination of all the courts in Mahoning County below the common pleas level and the creation of a county-wide metropolitan system.
The chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, Maureen O’Connor, shares our opinion. O’Connor has urged Gov. John Kasich, who has the authority to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Douglas, not to name a successor. The Republican governor has made it clear that the Republican dominated General Assembly should eliminate the vacant judgeship in Youngstown.
Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras has publicly called on the governor not to make the appointment, and has recommended the elimination of the position through an act of the legislature.
Last week, the Mahoning County Bar Association said it believes the court can operate efficiently with two full-time judges.
In the past, budget cuts have resulted in the municipal court and the clerk of courts successfully suing the mayor and council in the Ohio Supreme Court.
But with the chief justice publicly advocating the change in the court system in Mahoning County below the common pleas level, such lawsuits will be summarily dismissed.