Editor’s Note: As the days wind down to the Aug. 31 closing of The Vindicator, this writer will revisit some of the mysteries that make the Mahoning Valley such a gold mine for journalists.
More than 30 years ago, one of the leading criminal lawyers in the Mahoning Valley came up with a brazen proposal regarding the criminal justice system: Get rid of all the courts in Mahoning County below the Common Pleas level and create a metropolitan court featuring seven full-time judgeships.
What made the late Atty. Don L. Hanni Jr.’s plan even more shocking was the fact that he was chairman of the county Democratic Party and had every political reason to embrace the status quo.
Yet, Hanni went all in with his idea – and in so doing found himself in the unusual position of forming an alliance with The Vindicator, which had been his archrival since he took over the Democratic Party many moons ago. (Hanni died in 2008 at age 82).
Creation of a metropolitan court should have been a no-brainer. After all, it was tailor-made for every taxpayer in Mahoning County tired of government waste and corruption.
The elimination of the four county courts (Austintown, Boardman, Canfield and Sebring, featuring part-time judges), and municipal courts in Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers was a huge selling point for The Vindicator. Youngstown had three judges who worked full-time (now there are two), while Campbell and Struthers each has a part-time judge.
The decline in the county’s population, the stagnant tax base, the decreasing case loads and, most of all, the ever-increasing expense of feeding the beast that is the public sector made shrinking the criminal justice system a worthy goal.
A review of the budgets of those courts provides the justification for getting rid of this archaic system.
Judges not only pull in obscene amounts of money (for the amount of time they actually work), they also receive full benefits. Local and state funds cover the costs.
In Youngstown, judges Carla Baldwin and Renee DiSalvo earn more than $100,000, plus benefit packages valued at over 60 percent of their salaries.
In Struthers, Campbell, Boardman, Austintown, Canfield and Sebring, the part-time judges earn more than $70,000 and receive full benefits.
All the courts have staffers who also receive decent wages and benefits.
With hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars being sucked into the court system, the question that must be asked is this: Why, after more than 30 years since it was proposed by Hanni, hasn’t the reorganization of the courts become a reality?
Indeed, why didn’t residents rise up in 2001 and demand change when then-Ohio Auditor Jim Petro conducted a performance audit of county government and recommended the elimination of the four county courts and the creation of a metropolitan court?
Eighteen years ago, Petro noted that the elimination of the county courts would save $256,800 a year in rent payments and would end duplication of services.
Petro did not include the cost savings to be derived from eliminating the municipal courts.
It should be pointed out that over the years, there has been a great deal of lip service given to the restructuring, but nothing has come of it.
Simply because any effort to eliminate jobs in the public sector is guided by one consideration: pensions. The prospect of a lucrative windfall at the end of an inconsequential tenure in the public sector fuels the resistance.
After all, the benefits of working in government salve any criticism from some pesky columnist who uses derogatory language, such as “pencil pushers” and “slopping at the public trough,” to describe the dedicated men and women.
Even when there’s overwhelming evidence that getting rid of the courts below the Common Pleas level would save the taxpayers gobs of money and would further the administration of justice, the status quo remains intact.
The decision-makers can’t even be shamed into doing the right thing.
Here’s a show stopper: In June, former Mahoning County Court Judge Diane Vettori-Caraballo was sentenced to 30 months in the federal penitentiary after she pleaded guilty to stealing from the estate of a deceased client. (The part-time county court judges are permitted to maintain private law practices. Under the metropolitan system, the judges would be full-time, thus giving up their private practices.)
Vettori-Caraballo was convicted on counts of mail fraud, structuring bank deposits and making false statements to law enforcement.
Her fall from grace brought to mind other judges who found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
They include two former county court judges, Martin Emrich and Fred Bailey; two former Youngstown Municipal Court judges, Patrick V. Kerrigan and Andrew Polovischak; a former county Common Pleas Court judge, Maureen Cronin; and former Probate Judge Mark Belinky, who resigned and was replaced by Judge Robert Rusu.
But even with such a stunning list of scofflaws, the criminal justice system in the county remains unchanged.
More than three decades ago, Hanni’s proposal gave hope to taxpayers who had long sought to penetrate the Gated Community that is the public sector.
But in the Mahoning Valley, hope does not spring eternal because the concluding chapter of the saga of public corruption has yet to be written.
Therefore, when The Vindicator publishes its last edition on Aug. 31, there will be a collective sigh of relief from the multitude of public employees because they will no longer have to be worry about being put under the microscope.
Happy days will soon be here again.