By Marc Kovac
Legal counsel representing Youngstown municipal judges pressed city officials on the community’s failure to fund court improvements.
Attorneys for the city pressed back, eliciting explanations from council members and an architect about the suitability of the present court facilities and the city’s ability to pay for future renovations.
Andrew J. Campbell, an appointed hearing officer, will consider that testimony and other witness comments this week, as the two sides attempt to sway the Ohio Supreme Court to end a long- standing disagreement on the condition of Youngstown Municipal Court. The hearing is to last up to five days.
Legal wrangling in the case has stretched out over five years, with a failed attempt at mediation in 2010 and countering plans favored by the judges and the city.
Campbell, appointed by the state’s high court, is considering testimony this week by a potential two dozen witnesses, the majority of whom are driving to Columbus from Youngstown to make their appearances.
Campbell will make a recommendation in the case, with the final decision left in the hands of the Ohio Supreme Court.
Hearings began Monday morning with testimony from an architect and city councilmen on the current condition of the court facilities, on plans for improvements and on what city officials have done to fund the latter.
Legal counsel representing the city and the judges declined to comment to reporters Monday on the substance of the case, saying it would be inappropriate to do so during deliberations, and witnesses were given the option to decline to be photographed or have their comments recorded during the proceedings.
In May 2009, three Youngstown municipal judges — there are now two — filed suit against the city, naming council members and the mayor and alleging that court facilities were “entirely inadequate ... not clean, adequately heated and air-conditioned or adequately maintained.”
Courtrooms, they said, didn’t have enough seats or blackboards or other “necessary demonstrative aids.” Court offices didn’t have enough tables, chairs and desks, let alone separate rooms dedicated for jury deliberations or attorney consultations.
There were no waiting rooms with reading materials or televisions or telephones. And there were “no clean, modern restroom facilities” outside of “a one commode unisex restroom two floors below the floor on which the court, violations bureau and pay-in windows are located.”
The list of deficiencies outlined in court documents goes on from there — carpet repaired with duct tape, panels stained and pulling away from walls, exposed wires, cracked and crumbling plaster.
“They are horrible,” architect Raymond J. Jaminet, whose firm is behind the design preferred by the court, said concerning the facilities. “They are unsafe.”
Jaminet, the first witness to testify Monday, said his firm consulted the judges and law enforcement in its design work.
“They [the judges] know how the building is to be run, and we’re to interpret that and make drawings,” he said, acknowledging that his firm did not consider the court’s caseload in completing its design.
The judges also say millions of dollars in capital improvement funds have been directed to other projects instead of to needed court improvements.
“The evidence in this case establishes that the respondents have diverted funds from the capital improvement fund and they have chosen to spend the money elsewhere while the municipal court remains in shambles,” according to documents. “Both city council and the mayor have remodeled their offices.”
‘Difficult’ budget times
City officials counter in legal filings that the city is struggling with a shrinking population, employment base and tax collections.
While the city has halved its work force, municipal court’s employee ranks have “remained the same or increased,” according to documents. “The Youngstown Municipal Court’s docket has greatly declined and continues to decline, and other municipal courts with comparable dockets operate with fewer employees, fewer judges and at a much lower cost.”
City officials said they offered proposals to ensure municipal court had facilities that met the Ohio Supreme Court’s standards and guidelines, but judges were unwilling to consider alternatives.
Both sides agree the city hall annex on the corner of Front and Market streets is the best location for a new court facility. The judges wanted $8 million to renovate the annex while the city administration countered with a $6 million plan. The court is currently on the second floor of city hall, 26 S. Phelps St., but judges and Mayor John A. McNally don’t want that to remain the court’s home.
Contributor: David Skolnick