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Law would get township cruisers on interstates

Several Mahoning Valley townships may have their police cruisers patrolling their respective portions of Interstates 80 and 76 if legislation proposed by a local state lawmaker reaches the governor’s desk.

At least one area police chief applauds the action, while another says the new law won’t go far enough. A police chief of a large Mahoning County township said his cruisers won’t be on the interstate looking for traffic offenders if the law passes.

Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Warren, applauded the full Ohio House passage last week of House Bill 206, which he jointly sponsored with Republican Rep. Haraz Ghanbari of Perrysburg.

This proposed law would grant township trustees in Ohio the permissive authority to allow their police officers to enforce Ohio laws on the interstate highways in their jurisdiction. The bill passed the full House on Wednesday by a vote of 83-10. On April 24, the legislation breezed unanimously through the House’s Transportation and Public Safety committee.

That means that if the legislation passes the Senate and makes it to Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk for his signature, township officers in Weathersfield, Liberty and Hubbard townships in Trumbull plus Austintown in Mahoning County would get to patrol their respective segments of Interstate 80.

“House Bill 206 enhances the safety of our township residents when they’re on local interstates,” O’Brien said.

Current law does not permit townships with less than 50,000 residents to make arrests, enforce laws or issue traffic citations on the interstate.

The house bill — which saw O’Brien reach across to aisle to get Mahoning Valley colleagues Reps. Al Cutrona, R-Canfield and Mike Loychik, R-Bazetta, plus fellow Democrat Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan, D-Youngstown, to co-sponsor the legislation — changes that law for townships having a population between 5,000 and 50,000.

Trustees would have to grant or revoke this police authority through resolution, according to the legislation.

Any speed fines collected will be paid to the county treasury for highway maintenance and repair within that particular county.

Liberty police Chief Toby Meloro said his officers now go up on the interstate to cover things if a state highway patrol cruiser isn’t available.

“I think we should have authority to write tickets up there and other action if something happens,” Meloro said. “We are going there anyway. If we can stop somebody driving crazy, we will do it.”

Austintown police Chief Bob Gavalier said if the law is passed, he “would have no interest” in sending his officers on the interstate to look for traffic offenses. Gavalier said his force may join in cases of drug interdiction.

“We have our hands full trying to catch speeders on the township roads,” Gavalier said.

While O’Brien’s legislation affects three Trumbull County townships plus Austintown, two western Mahoning County townships appear to be left out.

Milton Township police Chief Charles Van Dyke said he has no opinion on this legislation, because both Jackson and Milton townships don’t fall under the population specifications.

“Interstate 76 does run through Milton Township, however, according to the summary of H.B. 206, it would permit a township police officer who serves a population between 5,000 and 50,000 to enforce specified traffic offenses on interstate highways within the township,” Van Dyke said. “Milton Township has a population of approximately 3,500 and therefore, does not meet the requirements.”

According to 2018 census statistics, Jackson Township, where the Bailey Road / Interstate 76 interchange is located, has 2,029 people.

Attorney Mark Finamore, who served as law director for several area townships, including Liberty, said he thinks this legislation was introduced for “revenue-raising” purposes. He said townships now must seek new revenue sources because they are losing others, such as the state and federal governments.

“You have to wonder that those (townships) that have small police forces, should they not be patroling neighborhoods for break-ins and vandalism? It simply befuddles me,” Finamore said. “I can’t see township police cars on interstates adding any significant safety factors. I think it would be marginal at best.”

Now in private practice, however, Finamore said he gives advice to those clients with traffic citations to simply “pay the fines.”

“You have to pick your battles nowadays,” Finamore said.

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