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Mayor’s Court being used less

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Yellow Springs Mayor’s Court is the village version of the judiciary, where misdemeanors and traffic citations are adjudicated by an elected arbiter with efficiency and local values in mind. Mayor’s Court has traditionally been an option that local police could use for cases they preferred not to send to Xenia Municipal or Greene County Common Pleas Court. However, over the past five years, the use of the local court has declined to less than half the cases it was handling five years ago.

According to Mayor David Foubert, he has noticed the decrease in the number of cases coming to his court but does not understand the reason for the change. And he feels that Mayor’s Court is an important asset to a community that values tolerance and opportunities for rehabilitative justice.

“It’s important that local residents have a place to be heard by a peer — we are a unique community, and we need to handle our own cases,” Foubert said in an interview last week.

The reduced Mayor’s Court docket is partly due to a decline in the number of citations the Yellow Springs Police Department has issued over the past three years. High personnel turnover from the Village manager to the police chief and individual officers has resulted in a significant reduction in citations since Police Chief John Grote retired in early 2012. Though on average only 25–30 percent of citations get resolved in the local court, the total has affected the Mayor’s Court volume.

Also working against the local court is an opinion issued over the summer by Xenia Prosecutor Ron Lewis voicing his concern that the local police department was sending too many and the wrong kinds of cases to Mayor’s Court. In an interview last week, Lewis said that the issue was largely a matter of newer officers at the department not understanding the powers of the different courts.

“There have been a lot of new officers citing things to Mayor’s Court, so I talked to [then] Chief Pettiford about it, and he agreed with me,” Lewis said. “Take speeding for example — as a prosecutor, that’s not a concern to me, that’s something the mayor can handle … but no crimes of violence should go through Mayor’s Court.”

But according to Foubert, Mayor’s Court can absolutely handle more than traffic citations, and has always worked with former chiefs of police to do so.

Mayor’s Court and police activity

The number of cases Yellow Springs Mayor’s Court handles each year was relatively stable until 2012, when the volume dropped dramatically to about half its annual average and never recovered to the former level. Because all cases that go to Mayor’s Court come from Yellow Springs Police, the mayor’s caseload has kept pace roughly with the number of citations police have issued. Citations over the past two years have also been down.

From 2007 to 2011 Mayor’s Court settled an average of 800 cases per year, not including a spike in 2008 when 1,195 cases went through the local court. Within that timeframe, in 2010 and 2011, Yellow Springs police issued about 2,500 local citations each year. Individual officers have the authority to decide which court to use for their cases, and local police during those years sent an average of 30 percent of their misdemeanors and traffic citations to Yellow Springs Mayor’s Court.

But in 2012, the number of Mayor’s Court cases dropped to 439, and though the following year they rose again to 600, this year the court is on track to adjudicate just 300 cases for the year. Police citations also dropped in 2012 to about 1,700, and though in 2013 the number was back up to 2,200, this year the department is on track to generate a lower volume of 1,300 citations.

Some of that change can be attributed to police officer turnover. Over the past two years, the Village has had three Village managers, two police chiefs, and nine new officers in an eight-officer department. In addition, for much of the time, the chief has been either out or on light duty for medical reasons, and one officer was on administrative leave for several months.

“Having one officer out for training for four weeks, one [going] from full time to part time, one out on [administrative] leave, etc.,” affects the department’s capacity, Sergeant Naomi Penrod wrote in an email last week. “One officer since almost the beginning of the year has been training new people which means they are also pulled from routine patrol.”

In the spring of 2012 Interim Chief Arthur Scott took over for Grote and hired three new officers to replace two who left. Later that year, Pettiford was hired as the new police chief and soon after injured his shoulder on duty while helping with the morning drop-off at Mills Lawn School. Pettiford first went to light duty (office work only) in early February and then took medical leave from March 25 to April 15, when he returned to part-time light duty and then full-time light duty on May 29. That year the department placed one senior officer on administrative leave and hired three new officers to replace some who retired or left.

Then in early 2014 Pettiford took another medical leave of absence for the same injury, returning again to part-time and then full-time light duty. The department proceeded to hire three additional officers to replace those who had left.

Finally, last week, Chief Pettiford resigned his position for medical reasons, and the Village is again set to begin a search for a police chief.

What’s fit for Mayor’s court?

While the caseload and the citations run a somewhat parallel course, citation volume doesn’t account for the total decline in Mayor’s Court cases. The percentage of citations that go to Mayor’s Court has dropped from about 33 percent in 2010 to approximately 20 percent this year.

The city prosecutor’s opinion could account for some of the drop in 2014. In a memo Lewis sent to then Chief Pettiford in July 2014, he advised the local police department to stop sending to Mayor’s Court “all jailable offenses,” including charges involving operating a vehicle while intoxicated (OVI), domestic violence, assault, menacing or aggravated menacing, or aggravated trespassing. Because mayor’s courts are not courts of record, according to Lewis, prosecutors have difficulty using mayor’s cases to enhance charges for repeat offenders, for example. In addition, mayor’s courts don’t have the resources to provide victim services, such as providing an advocate to represent a victim of crime, nor do they have probation programs to ensure defendants are completing their full sentence.

Lewis also said he was concerned that the mayor’s office had occasionally amended or dismissed a charge without approval from the prosecutor, which is not proper procedure, he said.

The advice was not meant to change policy, Lewis said, but to remind officers of the proper way to use the different courts. When he talked to Pettiford, they agreed to be more conservative with the local court.

According to police Sergeant Josh Knapp in an interview last week, Pettiford communicated that opinion to the officers, and all agreed to reserve Mayor’s Court for enforcing traffic citations, Village ordinances, neighbor disputes and “violations that aren’t going to affect future cases.” Conversely, Knapp said, crimes of violence against someone’s person and sex offenses should go through a court of record “because the next time the offense occurs, the penalty goes up.”

In Mayor’s Court, convictions “don’t go on people’s driving records and criminal histories, which makes it tougher on the officers and prosecutors later,” he said.

While the Ohio Revised Code says that mayor’s courts are authorized to hear violations of municipal ordinances “relating to operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, a drug of abuse, or a combination of them” as long as it’s a first offense in six years, Knapp said that officers aren’t forced to send any cases to Mayor’s Court if they don’t believe it’s the best place to seek justice for a particular offender.

But Knapp appreciates having the option to use Mayor’s Court, which he didn’t have as an officer in Fairborn, where misdemeanors went to Fairborn Municipal and more serious offenses went to Greene County.

“The outlet for Mayor’s Court is we do have an opportunity to settle things with the mayor… barking dogs or dogs at large is more of a village issue… neighbor disputes…where people have an opportunity to talk and explain to the mayor what they’re doing.”

According to Foubert, not only is the mayor vested by the Ohio Revised Code to hear cases involving jailable offenses, minor assaults, OVIs and misdemeanors of all kinds, but the local office has also been hearing those kinds of cases for decades — Foubert himself has been the mayor for 24 years. Mayor’s Court files a record of every case with Clerk June Allison, does have the ability to request protection orders for victims, and requires that intervention counselors report back to Mayor’s Court on completion of treatment (without which the defendant would be in contempt of court, Foubert said). Though there are other courts, mayor’s courts have the unique ability to dispense justice through a community-oriented lens, giving “offenders” a chance for rehabilitation and recovery.

“This court is not punitive — we want to help people to be good members of society and to get people back on track,” he said. “The police department can utilize the court to help with community policing — if an officer is having trouble with a person, we’d talk about things and figure out a solution so they didn’t end up in jail. Jail is not the answer.”

Most disappointing for Foubert was that the police department’s reinterpretation of the appropriate use of mayor’s court was not discussed with him, as mayor.

“Communication was severely lacking between the former chief [of police] and the court,” Foubert said.

Mayor’s Court, a little context

Yellow Springs Mayor’s Court is the only judicial office of its kind in Greene County, in one of only two states (Ohio and Louisiana) that allow for the locally controlled courts, according to a 2007 Ohio Supreme Court Summary. Ohio has about 320 mayor’s courts, mostly in towns with between 1,000 and 5,000 residents, though the number is dwindling due to consolidation with bigger, more formal courts. Though mayor’s courts are not officially governed by the higher court sysem, they are overseen by the Supreme Court and must report annually on their activity.

Currently in Ohio it is more common for magistrates and attorneys to preside over mayor’s courts. According to an opinion on the usefulness of mayor’s courts published in the Dayton Law Review in 2010 by attorney Paul Revelson, in 2007 just one in seven trials in Ohio mayor’s courts were heard by mayors. Still, Ohio law does not require an attorney for mayor’s court, only that those presiding complete some legal training.

Foubert continues to update the legal training required for his office. He has been elected 11 times, and has run every two years largely unopposed. Long ago he chose theology over his grandfather’s law practice, and currently holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from McCormick Theological Seminary and has served as a pastor for the Presbyterian Church for 40 years. When he became mayor in 1990, he took the state-required two-day training provided by the Ohio Municipal League and a one-day refresher course each year thereafter.

Though the court’s budget has been declining, Mayor’s Court provides some revenue to the Village general fund. In  2013, for example, the court generated $55,000 in revenue, of which about $20,000 was spent for restitution, indigent defense funds, victims of crime, drug law enforcement and other expenses, leaving about $35,000 for the Village general fund. The Village covers the part-time clerk’s salary and the $7,000 annual stipend for the mayor (the mayor is paid the same as Village Council members), but the court has generally paid for itself or come out ahead, according to Foubert. In years when the court was busier, for example in 2008, the court generated around $70,000 for the Village general fund.

Though police may be refining how best to use Yellow Springs Mayor’s Court, there is no question of its importance to the Village, according to Village Council member Karen Wintrow. In the mid-2000s Ohio Supreme Court Justice Thomas Moyer pushed for the elimination of mayor’s courts, largely due to the unconstitutional dual role many mayors have as both the levier of fines and executive of the budget that benefits from the revenue. That conflict of interest does not exist in Yellow Springs, where Council presides over the Village budget. And in the midst of the state-wide argument, Council reiterated its support of mayor’s court as an avenue for some local control and greater ease and efficiency for small claims.

“Certainly the value of Mayor’s Court is keeping it local and keeping people in town as a certain form of meting out justice,” Wintrow said. “If we’re going to have Mayor’s Court, we should be taking advantage of what it offers — but it needs to operate legally and to the benefit of the community.”

The Village Human Relations Commission plans to host a community forum on Oct. 23 on local policing, and Wintrow suggested perhaps the Mayor’s Court could be folded into the discussions about how villagers want the local justice system to work.

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