Mayor’s court used less in village
- Published: February 11, 2016
This is the second in a two-part series on mayor’s courts.
The Yellow Springs Mayor’s Court began in the early 1950s, when the Village Charter was written. Village leaders established the community court to “make the administration of justice local, to make justice part of the community,” according to longtime former Council member Tony Bent.
The purpose of mayor’s courts in many Ohio small towns — state law allows the courts in towns with population greater than 200 and no municipal court — is to provide a court that’s more convenient and less formal than a municipal court in a neighboring town, according to a variety of court representatives in last week’s News.
But some mayor’s court officials, including Mayor David Foubert of Yellow Springs, aim to provide something even more significant than convenience and informality when hearing cases. Mayor’s court can offer a more personal and compassionate system of justice than that found in the traditional courts, Foubert believes.
“I think it’s a different approach than the traditional court, in that we’re trying to guide people to get help,” said Foubert in a recent interview. “We’re trying both to protect the individual and protect the community.”
Until the last several years, Mayor’s Court was used steadily, according to Yellow Springs News archives. Mayor’s court handles almost all violations of local ordinances, such as traffic offenses, disorderly conduct and drug offenses. However, many offenses can be cited under either local law, in which case they would go to mayor’s court, or state law, in which case they go to Xenia Municipal Court.
When John Grote was police chief, he directed his officers to send as many cases as possible to mayor’s court, with the exception of domestic violence and repeat drunk driving offenses, which state law requires be sent to Xenia Municipal Court.
“It was different than the Xenia Municipal Court, less punitive,” Grote said. “We preferred to keep things in Mayor’s Court.”
Consequently, in 2005, the mayor heard 949 cases (not counting parking tickets); in 2006 he heard 1,131 and in 2007, he heard 855.
But the use of Yellow Springs Mayor’s Court has declined significantly since then. The decline began during the brief tenure of Chief Anthony Pettiford, for a variety of reasons, according to an earlier News article. A large turnover of officers led to a decrease in the overall number of citations being written. And the decline deepened after Xenia Prosecutor Ron Lewis wrote Pettiford a memo urging Pettiford to send more cases to the Xenia Court. In 2012 the Mayor’s Court heard only 428 cases, as compared to 710 the previous year.
In the past year, since Chief Hale became head of the local police, use of mayor’s court has remained in decline. In 2014, the mayor heard 230 cases and last year he heard 279. (A recent statement during a Village Council meeting that use of Mayor’s Court had risen significantly last year was based on an inaccurate figure, which included parking tickets along with citations.)
In an interview last week, Chief Hale said he has nothing against mayor’s court. In fact, he said, “I love the idea of it.” He also said when he took on the police chief job he didn’t intend to make substantial changes in the operation of the department.
“I’m not here to change the direction of the ship, just to steer it,” he said.
However, he has reservations about mayor’s court, and has communicated these reservations to his officers, Hale said. His main concern rests with his reading of a section of the Ohio Revised Code that Hale believes suggests that the local court is not in line with state law. And while he allows his officers the choice of whether they send cases to mayor’s court or Xenia Municipal Court, he suspects they may be influenced by their chief’s reservations.
“I’ve not prohibited sending cases to Mayor’s Court, but my troops are aware of my concerns,” he said. “I think they want to be seen as doing the right thing.”
Local restorative justice?
Village Council plans to discuss mayor’s court this year, as two Council members have identified effective use of the court as a goal for 2016.
Council member Marianne MacQueen believes that attention to mayor’s court is warranted because “our community wants these issues kept within the community as much as is appropriate,” she wrote in a recent email. She also sees the court as a potential venue for distribution of restorative justice, that “whenever a person commits an act outside the agreed upon community values/laws, the justice system holds that person accountable and seeks to restore wholeness to the community.”
Council member Judith Hempfling also sees value in mayor’s court as a potential venue for not only restorative justice, but transformative justice, defined by the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective as “about responding to violence in ways that don’t cause more harm and don’t perpetuate more violence…”
“Yellow Springs has a great potential in using the mayor’s court as an important part of a Restorative Justice/Transformative Justice program that could be a huge positive for our community,” she wrote in an email.
Mayor Foubert, an ordained Presbyterian minister, sees his role as attempting not only to hold people accountable for their actions, but also to address underlying problems that may have contributed to breaking the law. For instance, if someone appears in court who seems to have anger issues, Foubert may urge the person to enter an anger management program in exchange for dropping the charge.
“You have a choice of paying a fine or going for counseling,” Foubert said. “Then we’ll follow up to make sure they complete it. Most people follow through. You try and rehabilitate.”
Two villagers who have experienced mayor’s court in recent years reported that they believed they were treated in a way that felt more holistic and compassionate than would likely have happened in a traditional court. They asked for anonymity due to having been in the court system.
One local woman came to the court charged with disorderly conduct after having yelled an obscenity at someone with whom she was having a dispute, an action she acknowledged as regrettable. The court experience was informal, with the arresting officer advocating for her and the mayor interested in hearing her story. Because she’d had no prior arrests, the mayor said he’d consider dropping the charge if she went six months without further problems. When she returned to court after six months and no further incidents, he dropped the charge and spoke to her encouragingly.
“I felt he was kind,” the woman said.
Another local woman found herself in mayor’s court charged with reckless driving after a fender-bender accident. She had never before been in trouble with the law, and was anxious about going to court, she said. She ended up paying a fine, but the experience was far less stressful than she had imagined, she said, as the mayor seemed a fatherly figure who was “implementing family rules.”
“He meted out justice in an amiable way,” she said. “It was a better experience than I anticipated.”
However, another villager questioned whether mayor’s court could suffer from too much amiability. When she went to mayor’s court seeking damages after a dispute with a neighbor, she initially found the mayor overly jokey and friendly with the neighbor, said the woman, who had been deeply distressed by the incident. But when she asked the mayor to be more respectful, she felt that he listened.
“The mayor ended up treating it fairly,” she said. “I felt in the end that justice was done.”
An atmosphere of informality was apparent in the most recent mayor’s court in Village Council chambers, when the only defendant, a Xenia man, was charged with speeding and driving without a valid license. When Foubert questioned the man on why he didn’t have a license, he talked about previous fines that he couldn’t pay due to mounting financial issues and a new baby.
“But you can’t just stop paying,” Foubert said. “You’ll get into more trouble.”
Besides the defendant and Foubert, the only other person present, besides two observers, was the officer involved with the case, who vouched for the man’s good behavior. Foubert ended up finding the man guilty of both charges, but reducing the fines to half what they could have been.
That informal scenario represents the aspect of mayor’s court that Chief Hale finds questionable, Hale said recently. That is, he believes that state law requires the presence of a prosecutor in court, and he also believes that the Yellow Springs court is unusual in not having one.
Specifically, Hale pointed to Section 1901.34 of the Ohio Revised Code that states, “the village solicitor, city director of law or similar chief legal officer for each municipal corporation within the territory of a municipal court shall prosecute all cases brought before the municipal court.”
Because the local court does not include a prosecutor, it is in violation of this section of state law, Hale believes, and that is the concern he’s communicated to his staff.
“If the law says there has to be a prosecutor and there’s not, I don’t want to send cases there,” he said.
However, Hale’s interpretation of state law isn’t accurate, according to Karen Sheffer, a Columbus attorney who for the past 20 years has provided the 12 hours of training required yearly for newly elected mayors who will run a mayor’s court (and six hours of training yearly for re-elected mayors such as Foubert). The training is sponsored by the Ohio Municipal League.
Specifically, Sheffer said, the section of state law cited by Hale relates to municipal courts, and mayor’s courts, in contrast, are considered “police courts” and are addressed in another section of the code.
While Sheffer said she’s not aware of the numbers, a portion of mayor’s courts in smaller towns, such as Yellow Springs, don’t use prosecutors.
“I am aware that some smaller mayor’s courts do not have prosecutors present, which generally is not an issue when the mayor is simply taking pleas on the original charge,” she wrote in an email.
However, Sheffer also stated that she believes it is best practice to have a prosecutor in a mayor’s court, especially if the court hears both contested and uncontested cases, as is the situation in Yellow Springs.
Sheffer also took issue with the concerns of Xenia Prosecutor Ron Lewis, who had communicated with Chief Pettiford several years back that more cases should be sent to the Xenia Court. Specifically, Lewis said in a recent interview, he believed that Yellow Springs officers should send to Xenia all offenses that could be “enhanceable,” that is, would be more serious offenses if repeated, such as operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, or OVI. Because the local mayor’s court does not have a court reporter, there is no official record of the court proceedings, which makes it harder to prosecute a repeated offense in the future, Lewis said recently.
In response, Sheffer said that there is a record of any first-time OVI at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, which is readily available to prosecutors. But if not having a record of the proceedings is a problem, she said, there’s an easy solution: tape proceedings at mayor’s court.
Finding common ground
After 20 years training mayors to dispense justice, Sheffer said she is an advocate of the courts as long as they are run effectively, because residents of a local community understand their problems better than does a judge from another town.
“Some communities may have a Walmart and problems related to theft, and another may have speeding problems because there’s two state routes intersecting in town,” she said. “Each community has unique issues. If zoning is kept in the community, why shouldn’t enforcement of community ordinances?”
In Yellow Springs, two Council members, Chief Hale, Village Manager Patti Bates and Mayor Foubert met on Monday to begin a discussion on the use of the court. While Foubert introduced himself when Hale first came on the job at the beginning of 2014, the two haven’t spoken much since, Hale said.
“Clearly, there’s things the mayor and I need to talk about,” he said last week.
On Tuesday, Bates said the meeting had gone well, and would be followed by other meetings between the chief and the mayor.
“I think we’re discovering there is more common ground than was generally thought,” Bates said.