ALLAN DETRICH Enlarge
ALLAN DETRICH Enlarge
Every year the 60-person village of New Rome in central Ohio raked in around $400,000 in traffic fines and court costs, much more than towns 20 times its size.
Speeders, seat belt violators, and drivers with broken tail lights were all ticketed and forced to appear in mayor's court, where they were fined and sometimes even handcuffed to a church pew that served as a holding cell.
This went on for two decades, despite lawsuits, complaints, and protests. Finally, a law - unofficially called the “New Rome bill” - was passed by the state legislature primarily to try to dissolve the village and address hundreds of complaints that it is nothing more than a “speed trap” used to bankroll the police department. It goes into effect Aug. 29.
“I think it took so long primarily because of apathy,” said New Rome Mayor Jamie Mueller. “It was really just a confusing mess to figure out what to do.”
That's because Ohio's mayor's courts, set up to allow local mayors to rule on misdemeanor charges filed by their town's police, are almost entirely unregulated.
No state agency is charged with making sure these courts don't abuse their power. Nobody even has a handle on exactly how many mayor's courts are out there, though it is estimated by a clerks' association to be around 450.
In January, the state will require mayor's courts to report their existence to the Ohio Supreme Court. But collecting data and reporting it to the General Assembly is about as far as the higher court's authority will go. When the Supreme Court was given power to regulate other Ohio justice systems, mayor's courts didn't exist.
“I think it was assumed that's all [the courts] there would be,” said Dennis Whalen, a spokesman for the Ohio Supreme Court.
A review by The Blade of Ohio's mayor's courts and their most recent financial audits by the state shows that mayor's courts handle tens of millions of dollars a year. In fiscal year 2003, the state treasury received $5.6 million from the mayor's courts as its share of fines and court costs, and that's only a small part of the money.
More than two dozen villages collect more money in mayor's court than from property taxes - in some cases, 10 times more money, The Blade review found. When West Millgrove in Wood County was in such financial despair it had to sell its village hall, mayor's court money pulled them back.
Many of the mayors interviewed said they think the New Rome bill is the first step toward abolishing all mayor's courts. For some towns, that would mean the end of their police departments because they are entirely funded by fines and court costs.
That, critics say, is the problem.
“If their only real job is to write tickets, and they need to write tickets to have a job, what is their real purpose? That is a huge conflict,” said Eric Skrum, spokesman for the National Motorist Association, a drivers' rights organization.
Under the new law, a handful of courts like the ones in New Rome and West Millgrove will have to close because the towns have fewer than 100 people. The law also lets state and county officials dissolve towns with fewer than 150 residents if they are determined by state courts to have abused the system like New Rome did.
The rest of Ohio's mayor's courts remain unregulated.
Mayor's courts have been criticized and ruled against by the highest court in the country. Four years ago, a state judicial committee recommended shutting down mayor's courts that legal observers said had outlived their purpose.
Mayor's court officials say they keep going because most of the courts operate efficiently and honestly.
“You can always find a couple bad apples,” said Jean Wurzbacher, president of the Association of Mayor's Court Clerks of Ohio, which has more than 200 members. “I think as long as we do our jobs properly, we have nothing to hide. There's criticism about municipal courts and they keep going. We're doing a job that needs to be done.”
There is a great disparity in the amount of money towns collect in fines and costs through mayor's court.
Haskins, a Wood County village of 718, has estimated based on past years it would collect about $9,000 this year. West Millgrove, a town of 78, collected more than $21,000 for the first five months of 2003.
In 2001, West Millgrove got $71,373 from the court; the state got $12,000 of it, Mayor James Carr said. That was seven times more than the money they usually raise in property taxes. They weren't the only ones.
According to the latest state audits, several villages got more money from mayor's court than property taxes, including Risingsun and Portage in Wood County. In Hanging Rock in southern Ohio, the town recorded $109,186 in mayor's court receipts in 2000 compared with $3,106 in property taxes, according to state audits.
At $428,000, mayor's court fines make up a good part of the budget in Linndale, a village of 126 near Cleveland. The community has been criticized for getting much of its revenue by patrolling a 1/4-mile stretch of I-71, and in the late 1990s was stopped from ticketing there by a law passed by the state. In 1999, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Linndale police could cruise that highway again after the village argued it was there to ensure safety.
State Rep. Larry Wolpert (R., Hilliard) said it's disheartening to see towns get most of their money from traffic fines in mayor's court. Mr. Wolpert noted Linndale, with 126 people, is small enough to fall under the scrutiny of the New Rome law, which he introduced.
For more than a decade starting in the early 1980s, West Millgrove had no mayor's court. When Mr. Carr started his second term as mayor, the town was in severe debt. In 1997, the mayor told the Fostoria Municipal Court magistrate he was taking back the revenue he said belonged to the town.
“I said, `We're drowning here. You're only giving me $10 on a fine.' I said I'd bring it back. He thought I was kidding. Money is money. I need it too.”
In 2000, the state auditor announced West Millgrove was out of financial emergency and credited its mayor's court for the comeback. Mr. Carr makes no apologies for the money taken in by the police and the court.
“For 12 years we didn't have Christmas lights. The last two years we did. It helps the village immensely,” he said. “If you don't want to get caught, don't break the law. Most people know they broke the law, and they just pay the fine.”
To get to mayor's court in West Millgrove, park behind the fire hall and walk on the stones behind the new wheelchair ramp. Go through the entranceway that resembles an outhouse, and down a long concrete ramp to the basement.
Magistrate Thomas McDermott puts a gold nameplate on the conference table that fills the room. It's the only sign court is in progress in the building that is used as town hall, police and fire department headquarters, and the site of a popular yearly fish fry.
Footsteps sound like stampeding elephants on the wooden floor above. The defendants have arrived.
This is court at its most basic.
The defendants are mostly speeders, often drivers traveling between Fostoria and Perrysburg caught cruising too fast on busy State Rt. 199 through this Wood County town, where the speed limit drops abruptly to 35 mph. Police have cited the violators under local ordinances and state traffic laws, and much of the fine money goes to the town.
The accused tell their stories to the prosecutor in the next room, take a seat at the conference table, and usually come clean with an admission of their guilt. Often, the magistrate cuts them a break, a reduced fine plus $50 court costs. The state gets $20 of the court costs; the village keeps the rest.
“If you come here and tell your story, and you have a good record, you'll probably get out for less,” Mr. McDermott said.
Anyone can ask to be transferred to Municipal Court and are automatically sent there if they request a jury trial. Thirty minutes and seven defendants later, Mr. McDermott is on his way to Wayne, four miles away, on the mayor's court circuit.
For more than 50 years mayors held court, usually in their offices long after business hours.
In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mayors should not act as judges when their job is to make money for the town. The case stemmed from a truck driver who was fined $100 for speeding in Monroeville, Ohio, which drivers complained was operating a notorious speed trap. Some thought the courts would be shuttered.
But mayors kept their gavels.
That changed four years ago, when the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals made a similar ruling. Most towns hired magistrates or attorneys to run their courts to avoid any improprieties or conflicts with the federal appellate court.
William Gaskin, mayor of South Point in southeastern Ohio, is one of the few mayors who still hold court. But Mayor Gaskin only hears uncontested cases.
“I never saw any need to change. Most people thank me when they leave my court,” he said. Lawrence County courts charge $80 in court costs; South Point mayor's court charges $46, and if the driver was gong less than 10 mph over the speed limit, the fine is often $25 or less.
Rick Whetsel, mayor of Risingsun in Wood County, said leading a court is not worth the hassle or the liability.
“The last mayor had people follow him home after court,” Mr. Whetsel said.
Mr. McDermott and Bowling Green city prosecutor Matt Reger make the town hall rounds in Wood County. They're paid per court session; the magistrate gets $150 and the prosecutor $100 in West Millgrove.
Despite the unorthodox venue, Mr. McDermott said he runs the court just like hearings in Bowling Green Municipal Court, where he is magistrate.
Nobody is trying to get rich here, Mr. Reger said.
“We're professionals. It's not some kind of backwoods court, not some kind of kangaroo court. When the mayors saw over it, I think there were mayors that were fair, and I think there were mayors who looked at the financial situation,” he said.
But some people argue that without regulation, towns can get to be like New Rome, where they're getting most of their money from mayor's court.
Representative Wolpert, who introduced the bill that eliminates the courts in the smallest towns, said he wants to see how well the law works, then possibly push to include larger villages.
“There is abuse, there's no doubt about that,” he said. “I think there needs to be some oversight.”
Even critics of mayor's courts acknowledge they are convenient for people who otherwise would have to deal with busier courts in bigger cities. But they say there needs to be more scrutiny on these small town courts.
In 1991, the Ohio Supreme Court started requiring training for mayors who run courts, much of it concerning alcohol-related crimes. It was at the same time the state was getting tougher on drunk driving.
Now, Ohio drunk drivers who commit a second offense are automatically transferred to Municipal Court, said Mr. Gaskin, South Point's mayor. He said before that, his court got 10 times more income, much of it from alcohol-related offenses.
The Mayor's Court Clerk Association works with Kent State University to certify court clerks, though it is not required.
The Ohio auditor's office is charged with making sure the state gets its share of the money and the bookkeeping is in order.
It found this year, for example, that Hanging Rock had kept the share that should have gone to the state treasury - about $10,000. Repaying the money will put the town in debt.
When now-Attorney General Jim Petro was auditor, he issued a report recommending New Rome be dissolved because the government served no purpose beyond making money for the police department. But the auditor's office is not normally a watchdog for the courts.
“It's not our job to regulate mayor's court. It's our job to make general observations,” said Joe Case, spokesman for state Auditor Betty Montgomery.
Ms. Wurzbacher, who heads the Mayor's Court Clerks Association, said she would welcome more oversight. It could weed out what she said are just a few bad towns, and it wold take some liability off each court.
“Would this end the criticism? Well, we hope so,” Ms. Wurzbacher said, sighing deeply. “But probably not. We just do the best we can.”