Centralizing courts not same as slashing number of courts
When the Mahoning County Corrections Planning Board says it supports the consolidation of three of the four county courts into a central facility, what members are talking about is a physical change as opposed to a systems change. The distinction is important because the change endorsed by the board last week preserves the status quo -- even though the Ohio Supreme Court, the Mahoning Valley Chiefs of Police Association and former state Auditor Jim Petro have called for the elimination of the part-time courts.
Placing the Boardman, Austintown and Canfield courts in one building, while allowing the Sebring Court to remain where it is, does nothing to address the larger issue of making the judicial system more efficient and cost-effective through the creation of a metropolitan court system below the Common Pleas level.
For more than a decade, we have advocated elimination of the part-time courts in Boardman, Austintown, Canfield and Sebring, the municipal courts in Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers and the mayor's courts in Poland and New Middletown. They would be replaced by a court system of full-time judges who would be elected from judicial districts, but would have metropolitan-wide jurisdiction.
No political courage
But despite all the arguments put forth over the years for getting rid of the current archaic system, local officials have not shown the political courage to embrace such sweeping change. Instead, they nibble at the edges by proposing the centralization of the Boardman, Austintown and Canfield courts.
We acknowledge that there will be savings in rent and in reduced staffing, but when just about every political subdivision faces declining revenues and increasing costs, and when the county commissioners must deal with a budget that is bleeding red ink, bold, innovative action is demanded.
When he was state auditor, Petro conducted a performance audit of county government that contained 200 recommendations for changing the way the people's business is conducted, including the creation of a metropolitan court system. The elimination of the part-time judges -- each one earns more than $50,000 a year and receives full benefits -- would save the county $256,800 a year in rent payments and would end duplication of services, the auditor said.
Prior to the May primary, in which they were seeking passage of a 0.5 percent sales tax, commissioners David Ludt, Anthony Traficanti and John McNally IV said they intended to push for the implementation of the recommendations.
In August 2003, the Mahoning Valley's police chiefs urged sweeping changes in the court system, saying that "a cadre of lifelong, predatory street criminals" is slipping through the cracks.
High court's opinion
And as Common Pleas Court Judge James C. Evans, a former county court judge, noted last week after the Corrections Planning Board came out in support of the physical consolidation of the three courts, the Ohio Supreme Court advocated the elimination of mayor's courts and part-time courts.
Because of parochialism and turf-protection, the metropolitan court system has failed to get traction. A half-loaf proposal has been discussed which would eliminate the four county courts and create three full-time judgeships.
But that does nothing more than give politicians a way out.
It is time for the commissioners and officeholders in the cities, townships and villages to embrace the sweeping change we and other fiscally responsible groups have long advocated and press the county's legislative delegation in Ohio General Assembly to introduce legislation to create the metropolitan court system.