Given that the debate over the Youngstown Municipal Court comes down to money — specifically, the salaries and benefits of the employees — it would foolish to assume that one of the three judgeships will be eliminated by the state Legislature without a fight.
In fact, opponents of change have been growing more vocal as the issue takes on a sense of urgency. One of the leading proponents of the status quo has been Youngstown Clerk of Courts Sarah Brown-Clark, who earns a breath-sucking $129,975 a year in salary and benefits. With three judges in the municipal court, the clerk of courts position is filled by election.
If the number of judges is reduced to two, which is what legislation introduced last week by state Reps. Bob Hagan, D-Youngstown, and Ron Gerberry, D-Austintown, aims to do, the clerk of courts would be appointed by the judges.
It is not known if Brown-Clark will run again when her term is up in 2016 — she was unopposed for re-election this year — but she probably has someone in mind to succeed her should she retire.
The reduction of the municipal court by one judgeship — the position is vacant due to the Aug. 1 retirement of Robert A. Douglas Jr. — should lead to a reduction in funding for the clerk’s office. This year, the city funneled $1,871,000 to the clerk of courts office. Mahoning County and the state of Ohio also contribute to the clerk’s salary and benefits, such as pension and health insurance.
So, should Brown-Clark deign to join in the opposition to the bill eliminating the judgeship, state legislators should bear in mind that the criminal justice system in Youngstown amounts to daylight robbery.
The municipal court’s tab this year is more than $2 million. Like the clerk, the city, county and state governments contribute to the judges’ salaries and benefits.
For a city with a population barely hitting 65,000, there is absolutely no justification for spending so much on this aspect of the criminal justice system — especially since most of the money is eaten up by payroll.
In addition, the caseload of the municipal court has been declining for several years and today is at a level below comparable courts in the state.
Having pencil pushers earning exorbitant salaries and benefits in a city with a median income of $24,000 for a family of four is unconscionable.
There are 50 employees in the clerk of courts office and 31 in the municipal court.
The Republican controlled House and Senate should not succumb to the pressure that will be exerted to kill the Hagan-Gerberry bill. More than two decades ago, then Mayor Patrick J. Ungaro found out just how entrenched the public sector special interests are in the city of Youngstown. Ungaro sought to have one of the three judgeships eliminated, but the legislation was killed by the then speaker of the House of Representatives, Vern Riffe.
What is noteworthy is that Ungaro was the Democratic mayor, the clerk of courts at the time, Rosemary Durkin, was a Democrat, and the Democrats controlled the House.
Yet, the effort to eliminate the judgeship failed.
The president of the Senate, Thomas E. Niehaus, R-New Richmond, and speaker of the House, William G. Batchelder, R-Medina, have some prominent political support for eliminating the Youngstown judgeship. The chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, Maureen O’Connor, has made it clear that the position is not needed and that the court system in Mahoning County below the Common Pleas level should be dissolved and a new metropolitan system created.
O’Connor, a Republican, has urged Republican Gov. John Kasich not to appoint a successor to Judge Douglas. The governor has urged the General Assembly to eliminate the position.
Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras has been one of the most vocal proponents of the elimination of the judgeship and the dissolving of the current court system below the Common Pleas level. Betras has advocated the creation of a metropolitan court system in the county.
Finally, the county bar association is on record as supporting the legislative elimination of the municipal court seat in Youngstown.