By Ed Runyan
A crowded field of well-known Democratic candidates makes the race for Niles Municipal Court judge the most competitive contest in the May 2 Trumbull County primary.
The candidates are Terry Swauger, the current Niles prosecutor and law director; Gil Blair, a Warren prosecutor and Weathersfield Township trustee; John Gargano, the county Job and Family Services director and former acting Niles judge; and Chris Shaker, who has worked as a private and county attorney.
The court handles criminal and civil cases originating in Niles, McDonald and Weathersfield Township. Longtime judge Thomas Townley chose not to see re-election to another term.
Interviews with the four candidates revealed all believe Niles Municipal Court should better address the opiate crisis by diverting some offenders to a drug court.
Blair says prosecuting cases in the courtroom of Judge Thomas Gysegem in Warren Municipal Court has shown him the ways addicts can be effectively directed toward treatment so that they can avoid jail.
He believes Judge Gysegem’s housing court also provides an effective model. Blair said he’d set up a special docket for blight-related housing issues and expedite the process by having the arraignment and pretrial hearing the same day.
This way, defendants can’t “skate” while the case slowly works its way through the courts.
Niles Municipal Court has no drug court, housing court or public-service program, and Blair says that would change if he’s elected.
Swauger says his 10 years as Niles prosecutor, 10 years before that as public defender in Warren Municipal Court and practicing law in most of the courts throughout the area means “I’ve essentially seen it all.”
Swauger said he’s seen courts that did not operate as efficiently as they should.
“I’ve been to courts where people sit there for hours, even a person who does the right thing and is a witness,” he said.
Swauger agrees with Blair that Niles Municipal Court needs to begin a community-service program.
He believes the city could collaborate with the drug-treatment courts in Girard and Newton Falls, however, so Niles doesn’t have to create its own.
“What we don’t have is a mental-health court,” Swauger said. He’d like to establish one in Niles.
John Gargano has been a private-practice attorney 34 years, advising the county’s Job and Family Services and Child Support Enforcement agencies for decades.
In 2012, he became director of Job and Family Services while still serving as its legal adviser.
Gargano also served as acting Niles Municipal Court judge under Judge Townley for 24 years but had to step aside from that position last December.
The reason is the Disciplinary Counsel of the Ohio Supreme Court concluded the judge position was in conflict with his JFS position.
The Ohio Constitution prohibits judges, including acting judges, from having separate offices of “profit or trust,” including the JFS job, the disciplinary counsel said in a Dec. 8 document obtained by The Vindicator.
Gargano has been on a leave of absence from his JFS position since February, but he still assists his administrators when specific items need his attention, such as a recent arbitration hearing, Gargano said during an interview.
With his experience as acting judge, “I could just move right in and hit the ground running,” Gargano said. He also served as Niles prosecutor in the early 1980s, handling seven to eight jury trials, he said.
His work with Job and Family Services and child support gives him vast administrative experience to apply to the judge position, he said. He supervised 230 people and oversaw a budget of millions of dollars, he said.
Candidate Chris Shaker became an acting Niles Municipal Court judge in 2016 after a law career that included 15 years as assistant county prosecutor, handling both civil matters such as representing school boards for 15 years and as juvenile prosecutor for two years. He was assistant Ohio attorney general in the collections division from 1984 to 1995.
His legal career also includes continuous service in one of two Shaker law firms in Niles dating back to 1983.
Shaker says he’s not accepting campaign contributions. If elected, he will not continue in the family legal practice; his brother, Robert, will continue it. Shaker’s late father is Mitchell Shaker, who served as Trumbull County Common Pleas Court judge.
Shaker said he thinks Niles needs a drug court to allow people who have relatively few offenses to get treatment instead of jail time.
A municipal court judge doesn’t deal with the felony drug cases. “But we’re dealing with an ordinary user. First time offender, yeah, I think a drug court is fantastic.”
There is no Republican candidate in the race.