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By David Skolnick
City council voted 4-3 on a resolution asking the state Legislature to maintain three municipal court judicial seats in Youngstown.
But that nonbinding vote doesn’t look like it will change the current makeup of the city’s municipal court system.
Mayor Charles Sammarone disagrees with the majority vote, which council took Wednesday, saying the city’s judicial branch needs to cut costs, and not filling the seat vacated July 31 through Robert A. Douglas Jr.’s retirement is a good start.
Also, a spokesman for Gov. John Kasich, who put off filling the vacancy in July at the request of Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, told The Vindicator on Wednesday that “nothing’s changed from where we sit.”
The elimination of a city municipal court judicial position requires a vote by the state Legislature under Ohio law.
State Rep. Robert F. Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, who supports the elimination of one of the city’s three judges, said he plans to wait until early next year to introduce legislation on the issue.
Also, state Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, who likely would be the point-person in the state Senate on a bill to eliminate the position, said he wasn’t ready to introduce that legislation.
Hagan planned in August to introduce a bill to eliminate the judicial seat, but didn’t, at the request of a majority of city council members. Hagan agreed he’d wait to take action until after he had an Aug. 23 public meeting on consolidating the lower-court system in Mahoning County, starting with the elimination of Douglas’ former seat.
That hearing came and went without Hagan introducing the bill.
Hagan told The Vindicator on Wednesday that he will wait until early next year to introduce the bill because of the uncertainty of what is happening in the Ohio House, which is in recess, with the general election a month away.
Then Councilwoman Janet Tarpley, D-6th, brought in the late legislation Wednesday asking the state Legislature not to eliminate that now-vacant third judicial seat.
Tarpley, along with Councilwoman Annie Gillam, D-1st, and Councilmen T.J. Rodgers, D-2nd, and Nate Pinkard, D-3rd, voted in favor of the resolution. The no votes came from Councilmen Mike Ray, D-4th, Paul Drennen, D-5th, and John R. Swierz, D-7th.
Hagan called the council members who voted in favor of the resolution “foolish. They’re being misled and have to face the reality of the cutbacks” in government spending.
There aren’t enough cases in municipal court to justify three judges and not replacing Douglas would save the city money, Hagan said.
Schiavoni, who is an attorney, said he’s waiting for the county bar association to complete a report on the cost savings of court consolidation before he would consider sponsoring a bill to eliminate a Youngstown Municipal Court judicial seat. Hagan said he also is waiting for that.
“We’re waiting for [Mahoning Valley officials] to show leadership and be in alignment with what Mr. Hagan had previously said and what the Supreme Court chief justice said,” said spokesman Rob Nichols.
Sammarone said he will provide information next week about the city’s uncertain financial future. The city likely is on decent financial footing the rest of this year and in 2013, but faces a monetary crunch after that, he said.
“Every other department reduced the number of employees,” he said. “It’s time now for the courts to look at the numbers. You’re not eliminating a judge. It’s already vacant. The same with clerk of courts. We just can’t afford the number of employees they have. When people leave, don’t replace them.”
A study of the city’s finances by the PFM Group, is projecting a $5.5 million operating budget deficit for the city by the end of 2013. But Sammarone said about 40 to 45 city employees likely will take an early-retirement incentive — and none of the vacancies will be filled unless it’s “absolutely needed” — which could save the city millions of dollars.
Among PFM’s proposals was the consolidation of the county’s lower courts. If that doesn’t work, PFM proposed having only one municipal court judge as well as reduce the number of employees in the clerk of courts office from 57 to 30 full-timers.