The Allen County sheriff says the county needs another court to handle misdemeanor cases and proposes hiring a consultant to study the issue. But Sheriff Dan Beck's suggestion has caught the court's presiding judge and others off guard.
Sheriff Beck said last week that a second court would help ease what he said was a backlog of cases, particularly those filed by smaller communities, that prevented the court and prosecutors from spending more time on serious criminal cases.
“We keep getting excuses. I'm sorry, we're not operating this agency on excuses. We work hard, and we expect others to work just as hard,” Sheriff Beck said.
The sheriff, who blames a recent plea bargain on the inefficiencies and the current caseload at Lima Municpal Court, said he would pay for a consultant to study the feasibility of a new court.
“It's really not rocket science,” he said. “It's just a matter of collecting data that already exists. It would [probably] cost less than $5,000,” he said.
But the court's presiding judge, William Lauber, said the call for a new court was news to him.
“Nobody has spoken to me about it. I'm really not in a position to give an informed answer to that,” he said.
Judge Lauber said he hasn't researched the issue to see whether there's a need, although a decision would be beyond his purview.
“A new court as well as additional judges is a function of the Ohio General Assembly,” Judge Lauber said. “Before they do that, the Ohio Supreme Court would have to create a study to see if it is warranted.”
Sheriff Beck said after his study is completed and he knows the direction he needs to take, he will lobby the county's state legislators to introduce the appropriate bill in Columbus.
Brad Kelley, president of the Allen County Bar Association, while agreeing that the court's volume can be overwhelming, said he did not see a need for a new court.
“I don't think a new court is the answer,” Mr. Kelley said.
The Lima court, which last year handled 20,777 cases, has had two municipal judges since the 1960s. In addition to Judge Lauber, cases are also heard by Judge Rickard Workman. Magistrate Joseph Weir hears misdemeanor traffic cases and other matters that do not carry a jail sentence.
Judge Lauber questioned the funding of a new court, much of which would be borne by the city.
“I believe there would have to be commitment from the funding authority that they would support the creation of a new court or additional judge,” Judge Lauber said.
Judge Lauber, who was named Lima's first magistrate in the 1970s, was appointed to the bench in 1982. He was elected the following year to complete the term, and has since been re-elected four times, including Nov. 4.
Sheriff Beck said the county contributes about $1 million a year to the court system in subsidies and court costs from sheriff department cases.
“We are investing in that court and we have absolutely no say,” he said.
The sheriff said he was frustrated with the plea agreement involving Daniel Burke, who was allowed to plead no contest to obstructing official business, while a charge of falsification was dismissed.
Sheriff Beck said the Burke case is only one example of what he calls an inefficient system.
“We've had a number of problems with the municipal prosecutor [where] inappropriate plea bargains are done just because they don't have the time or interest to take care of them,” he said.
Tony Geiger, Lima city law director, could not be reached for comment.
Blade staff writer George Tanber contributed to this report.