The rap sheet against Ohio’s mayor’s courts says that some spend public funds on holiday parties and flower arrangements, fail to properly account for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and use traffic fines to prop up village budgets.Mayor’s courts have long drawn fire from opponents who say it’s time to throw the book at the state’s small-town "speed traps."
Despite longstanding criticism, no one seems willing or able to make changes. Some examples:
• The Ohio Supreme Court keeps statistical records but doesn’t go after mayor’s courts that violate state law by failing to provide information.
• The state auditor’s office, which has found repeated instances of misspending and other problems, says it doesn’t have enforcement power to take corrective action. In the few cases in which a misdeed has been referred to a local prosecutor, little or nothing has been done to address it.
• State lawmakers can’t agree on how to address what former state Sen. Kevin Coughlin calls " Boss Hogg, backwoods justice."
"They’re like from the land that time forgot," the Cuyahoga Falls Republican said about the courts that first appeared in Cincinnati in the early 1800s.
"I think they have no place in a modern society where you have to have complete integrity in your judicial system."Ohio and Louisiana are the only states that retain mayor’s courts.
But Charles "Kip" Kelsey, a mayor’s court magistrate, said that doesn’t necessarily indicate problems."It’s called a mayor’s court, and that’s a throwback from when they were first originated years and years and years ago, when there was a mayor sitting in the back room of a gas station hearing a speeding ticket in a town of maybe 20 people," he said.
"That’s not what they are today, but the name stays — and maybe the stigma with it."Kelsey worked as an attorney for about 30 years and is now a magistrate for mayor’s courts in Marble Cliff and Pataskala, and a substitute magistrate for mayor’s courts in Shawnee Hills and Lithopolis.
"You could look at this two ways," he said. "The fact that Louisiana and Ohio are the only two states that have these mayor’s courts — are we then backward? Or maybe we’re forward. I like to think that maybe we’re progressive.
"There were 318 mayor’s courts in Ohio in 2011, and 76 percent of them were in villages with fewer than 5,000 residents.
There were 273,169 new mayor’s court cases in 2011, a 6 percent drop from 2010 and the second year the numbers declined, according to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Supporters, many with ties to small communities, say mayor’s courts are convenient and easy to navigate.
They also are the financial vehicles that keep many small villages going.
"These are not the kangaroo courts people seem to think they are," said Paul Revelson, who has practiced in mayor’s courts since passing the bar in 2010 and opening his private practice in Lebanon.
His father ran mayor’s courts in Morrow and Maineville, and Revelson wrote a commentary defending mayor’s courts that was published in the Dayton Law Review in 2010.
"Simply put, the mayor’s court is imperative to an efficient Ohio court system, as it provides the ability to prevent minor offenses from reaching courts with significant caseloads," he said.The late Thomas B. Moyer, the long-serving chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, didn’t share the sentiment. He tried for years to revamp the mayor’s court system, to no avail.
Now, the high court’s senior justice, Paul E. Pfeifer, is the most-vocal critic.
"People in (mayor’s courts) come out of there feeling like they just participated in a bad spaghetti western," he said, "where the cabinet maker or coffin maker takes off his apron, sits on a bench with a gavel and metes out justice."
Like many critics, Pfeifer said mayor’s courts are often more about fattening a community’s bottom line than protecting its residents. Some collect far more from mayor’s courts than from all local taxes combined.
"The judge is sitting there running a court in which his or her principal objective is what’s in the cash register at the end of the evening," Pfeifer said.
Small towns, big hauls
Two of the best examples sit at opposite ends of the state, tiny burgs most Ohioans probably have never heard of: Linndale, south of Cleveland, and Hanging Rock, just down the Ohio River from Ironton. They have the most mayor’s court cases per capita in the state.
In 2009, the Hanging Rock mayor’s court reported $401,218 in court revenue, 95 times the amount the village collected in property tax and other local taxes.
By comparison, Linndale is a piker; its $490,320 is less than six times its tax haul.
Hanging Rock, which hugs U.S. 52 for about a mile and a half, is home to 221 residents. But it pushed an average of about 2,400 cases through its mayor’s court in each of the past three years, according to Ohio Supreme Court reports.
Linndale, population 179, has carved out a similar reputation on its quarter-mile stretch of I-71. Its mayor’s court handled about 4,200 citations in 2011, more than 90 percent of which were traffic tickets.
Ohio’s 318 mayor’s courts processed almost 300,000 cases in 2011, making small courts a big business for villages and some cities. The state auditor’s office is charged with monitoring the millions of dollars in yearly mayor’s court revenue, but Chief Deputy Auditor Robert Hinkle said there is little it can do to discipline runaway courts.
The Dispatch reviewed state audits from 2009, the most-recent year for which data were generally available, of Ohio villages and cities with an active mayor’s court registered with the Ohio Supreme Court in 2011. About 20 percent of the 318 audits reported problems with mayor’s courts. For example:
• Tremont, just outside Cleveland, had "erroneous (false) postings of mayor’s court receipts" to the accounting system.
• Trimble, near Athens, did not classify receipts or tie them to case numbers and also failed to keep a balance in the cashbook, all of which "increased the risk that transactions recorded in the mayor’s court were not accurate or complete."
• Matamoras, northeast of Marietta, failed to record its mayor’s court activity on its accounting software, creating " weaknesses (that) could allow recording errors and irregularities to occur and remain undetected."& amp; lt; /p>
Problems also cropped up with the poster children for mayor’s courts.
In a review of the past 10 years of audits for Hanging Rock and Linndale, The Dispatch found repeated accounting and reporting errors, failures to disburse funds to the state and village in a timely manner and misuse of funds. For example:
• Because of the "inadequacy of accounting records" in 2009 and 2010, state examiners were unable to determine whether Hanging Rock’s court receipts, disbursements or cash balances were accurate.
• In those same two years, supporting documentation for mayor’s court tickets could not be located for 15 of 52 tickets (29 percent) spot-checked in Hanging Rock.
• The Hanging Rock mayor did not attempt to reconcile the mayor’s court bank account in 2005 and 2006, resulting in "cumbersome reconciliations and errors in the account going undetected for an extended period of time."
• From 2004 to 2005 in Linndale, auditors reported that an average of 14 percent of non-payroll disbursements were incorrectly recorded; flower arrangements, summer events and Christmas and Halloween parties were posted as operational supplies for mayor’s court accounts.
• In 2002 and 2003, Linndale’s court clerk mainly handled functions relating to receiving, disbursing and depositing cash, and reconciling and reporting, which "increases the risk that errors or irregularities in the accounting and reporting of the village’s financial activities and mayor’s court activity could occur."
Linndale Mayor Jo Ann Toczek declined an interview. Hanging Rock Mayor Chris Davidson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Despite this litany of problems, Hinkle said the state auditor’s office lacks authority to take action.
"We are a reporting agency; we are not an enforcement agency," Hinkle said. "In those cases, what we do is, if somebody’s records are a mess, we do what we can ... make a comment on the report."
Hinkle said it is up to local officials to implement recommended changes.
"The entity would have responsibility to take corrective action," he said. "There is no statute that says they have to."
Hinkle said the auditor may refer cases to the attorney general when money has been illegally spent, is unaccounted for or is due but has not been collected. But Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said cases involving mayor’s courts are rare. In fact, the office has records of only two mayor’s court investigations.
Local prosecutors are first given the chance to take action on any problems, leaving the attorney general out of the equation unless they refuse or fail to act.
"What we do is collect money, investigate for criminal activity or ... contact them about management problems," said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien.
But he said criminal investigations are rare, and his power to correct accounting errors that don’t rise to criminal offenses is limited.
"The prosecutor isn’t the ‘super-mayor’ of all cities just because he receives an audit report," he said. "I’m not the one to compel its curing unless there’s a crime committed ... and that’s a gap in what the law provides as far as how to solve a repeated problem."
Hinkle said the power ultimately lies with the people.
"We’re going to perform our statutory responsibility, which is to complete the audit and report that audit back to the entity and to the public," he said. "My hope is that our reports would make a difference, and if we identify problems, that they would be corrected.
"If somebody’s not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, the public ... should elect somebody else to do that job."
Lawmakers and overseers should seek to fix problems in individual mayor’s courts rather than abolish them all, said Revelson, the Lebanon lawyer.
The differences in municipal courts with the loss of mayor’s courts would be considerable, some say.
If the mayor’s courts in Licking County were abolished, for example, that county’s municipal court probably would need another full-time magistrate or judge to handle the extra cases, said Michael Higgins, a judge of Licking County Municipal Court. The third judgeship would require action on the part of the General Assembly.
Kelsey said passing mayor’s court cases to municipal courts is a bad idea.
"How many (more municipal court) judges will it take? I don’t know," he said. "Certainly more than one, probably more than three."
There might be bad mayor’s courts, Kelsey said, but they’re few and far between.
" For every one that may not be up to snuff, there are a hundred that do an excellent job," he said.
Other supporters of the system say that the informality and lower costs associated with mayor’s courts offer overarching benefits.
They also say high ticket numbers and revenue don’t necessarily indicate a speed trap. Hanging Rock Police Sgt. Robert Deerfield said the southern Ohio village’s numbers reflect crime control that stems from strict traffic enforcement.
"Criminals don’t want to come into your city because they know they’ll get pulled over, and they don’t like that," he said.
And many balk at suggestions of lax oversight of mayor’s courts. Among them is Worthington Mayor Harvey Minton, who has practiced trial and corporate law for about 50 years.
"I don’t agree that the Supreme Court doesn’t supervise us," he said. "The system isn’t broken."& amp; amp; lt; /p>
Angie Zeleznik, president of the Association of Mayor’s Court Clerks of Ohio, said oversight also comes from the ability to appeal to municipal courts.
"If a person doesn’t like the decision that was made, they can file an appeal — for any reason at all," she said. "It’s a trial de novo, so when they appeal, it’s as though the mayor’s court never happened."
Zeleznik, a clerk for the mayor’s court in Independence, near Cleveland, said the low rate of appeals shows the courts provide for their communities.
And despite the concerns by some, one mayor has decided this court system is exactly what his 30,000-member Cleveland suburb needs.
North Olmsted Mayor Kevin Kennedy recently announced that he is setting up a mayor’s court in the city that will begin operating on Jan. 1. Three or 4 miles of I-480 run through the city.
He said court costs from violations committed in North Olmsted should stay in the city, estimating that the mayor’s court would bring in about $250,000 a year.
The court, which was one of his campaign promises, will be more convenient for traffic violators, Kennedy said. And court costs will be at least $20 cheaper than at municipal court. Kennedy will appoint a magistrate.
"I think it’s a bad idea for a mayor to be overly involved in a court, and I won’t put myself in that position," he said.
The Ohio Supreme Court has its hands tied in overseeing mayor’s courts, spokesman Chris Davey said.
"There’s a whole comprehensive set of rules that the Supreme Court of Ohio has set, but mayor’s courts are not subject to them," Davey said. "Mayor’s courts are these interesting entities that exercise quasi-judicial powers that are wholly within the executive branch."
A 2004 law required mayor’s courts to file quarterly reports on the number of cases handled and whether courts use magistrates or mayors. According to the Ohio Revised Code, mayors and magistrates cannot hold court unless they file the reports.
At least six of the 318 mayor’s courts registered with the Supreme Court sent less data than the court expected for 2011, but Davey said enforcement is difficult.
"We can call, we can insist, we can persist, but for the most part, there is no sanction," he said.
Associate Justice Pfeifer said that tracking mayor’s courts is not a high priority for the Supreme Court.
"It’s probably fair to say it’s almost a dead letter ... at the Supreme Court," he said. "We’ve had our people who deal with court statistics focus on some of the bigger and more-life-altering problems for major constituencies in the state.
"It hasn’t been a topic of discussion. Should it be? Probably."
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor declined an interview but provided this written statement through Davey:
"Mayor’s courts are the law in Ohio, and the reality is that there does not exist a majority consensus among policy makers to eliminate mayor’s courts altogether. We have made some progress in improving their functioning and accountability in recent years through the enactment of the reporting requirements to the Supreme Court of Ohio.
"As with any function of government, we can always do better. I believe that where we should focus our energies is on examining mayor’s courts, how they function and where they can be improved."
Although mayor’s courts dispense justice to tens of thousands of Ohioans and demand fines totaling millions of dollars every year, the state doesn’t even require a law degree to run them. Mayors and magistrates are required to take six hours of classes on alcohol- or drug-related traffic offenses and another six hours on the judicial system and general court proceedings. Once they have those 12 hours in hand, they just need six hours of continuing training each year.
Although appointed magistrates — most of whom are attorneys — preside over many of the courts, 23 had all of their trials conducted by a mayor in 2011, and six more had at least some trials run by a mayor.
Legislative hot potato
The lack of consensus on mayor’s courts in the General Assembly has thwarted several attempts at reforming them. Dissent from legislators who do not want to spar with local officials in their districts has provided the courts with a strong shield, former Sen. Coughlin said.
In 2007, Coughlin sponsored Senate Bill 252 in an effort to eliminate mayor’s courts in villages and cities with fewer than 1,600 residents. In areas with a higher population, mayor’s courts would have been replaced with community courts, headed by magistrates appointed by the municipal court and fully under control of the Supreme Court.
The proposal failed in the Ohio House.
"It’s a tough thing to try to get done because so many communities still have mayor’s courts," Coughlin said. "It’s a heavy lift to get it done in the legislature."
Former Rep. Larry Wolpert, R-Hilliard, introduced a similar bill in the House in the same year, and it died on the floor.
"The Lady Justice has one eye not blindfolded down there," Wolpert said. "It’s the wild, wild West."
Currently, Sen. Tom Patton, R-Strongsville, is sponsoring Senate Bill 254, which would increase the minimum population required to conduct mayor’s court from 100 to 200.
Patton targeted Linndale for its court-dependent budget.
"Police officers are meant to protect and serve the citizenry," he said. "But Linndale seems content to use theirs as ad hoc toll collectors."
The bill is still in committee, and action is not expected until at least fall — if at all.
Going out of style?
While 48 other states don’t have mayor’s courts, several have local courts that are set up similarly. In New York and West Virginia, for example, the city courts’ adjudicators are not required to have a law degree. In some cases, mayors are permitted to run those courts.
Greg Hurley, an analyst at the National Center for State Courts, is unfamiliar with mayor’s courts but has observed the city courts in West Virginia.
"When I first saw a city court, I was downright appalled," he said. "I couldn’t believe they still existed. To me, that was 1920s’ kind of nonsense."He doesn’t expect mayor’s courts or city courts to last much longer.
"I think over time, we’re going to see more and more states going into a fully state-funded system," Hurley said.
Mayor’s courts also are not courts of record, meaning they don’t have court reporters and not all court proceedings are audio- or video-recorded. That isn’t the case with municipal courts, said Judge Higgins of Licking County Municipal Court.
"Everything we do here is open to public scrutiny and inspection," he said. "Every case is digitally recorded and kept. All records of the court are public record. Our expenditures, budget, income — it’s an open book."
Ric Simmons, a law professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said the Ohio system is outdated.
"These more informal methods are more from an era when we weren’t as concerned with everyone’s rights and making sure the proper proceedings are followed," he said. "Now, we’re not as willing to cut those corners."