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Published: Sunday, 2/5/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Judges take time off as costs mount

Most city budgets cut, but courts still spending

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER
From right, Judge Robert Christiansen, and judge Francis Gorman. From right, Judge Robert Christiansen, and judge Francis Gorman.
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Most employers keep track of when their employees are sick, on vacation, or just off the job, but Toledo taxpayers have no way of knowing how many days the top seven people working at 555 N. Erie St. are really absent every year.

Toledo Municipal Court judges are guaranteed at least six weeks of vacation, plus 13 paid city holidays, but a review by The Blade of the days each judge used a visiting judge to cover his or her mandatory court times and other records showed the time away from the bench can be much more.

Handwritten — or unofficial notes — on judges’ attendance kept in the assignment commissioner office indicated that Judge Robert Christiansen might have been out of the court 60 days in 2011 by using a combination of days marked “off” or when a visiting judge covered for him. Judge Francis Gorman was out 51 days. And that does not include the paid holidays.

Both judges say the records are inaccurate.

“I was not out of the building for [60] days. That is absurd,” Judge Christiansen said. “That is from this red book that Karen Woods kept, and I was constantly reprimanding her.”

Ms. Woods was the court’s assignment commissioner until her retirement on Jan. 3.

Judge Christiansen said “many” of the days he was recorded as off, he was actually in the building.

“I would schedule days in advance but then not use them and come in, but not ask the assignment commissioner to reschedule 50 trials,” he said. That means, he would be marked off for the day but actually be in the building without a docket.

It is difficult to tell if a judge is in the building simply by reviewing the dockets for the day. The docket sheet for the week of Jan. 23, for example, indicates Judge Timothy Kuhlman was in the courthouse, but he was actually not in most of that week.

Judge Christiansen and Judge Gorman, who is now retired but back at the court as a visiting judge sometimes, used visiting judges to cover their mandatory duties — which are separate from the dockets in their own courtrooms — more than any other judge in recent years. Both also said they took the full 30 days of vacation.

Judge Christiansen acknowledged that there is no official record for the time judges spent in the building. Judge Gorman admitted to spending time in Washington, D.C., to visit a woman he is dating but not more than his vacation days, which are set for judges by Ohio law.

“Some days I will schedule a docket and some days I use for desk work days,” Judge Christiansen said. “Last year, I took about 30 days and I think I was sick about seven days. The year before that, I looked at the visiting [judge] days, and I see I used 17 for vacation and then there were three days I was sick and three days I was at a municipal judge conference.”

Judge Christiansen said his 2010 days off were higher because he was “sick for about a month,” and was there “on and off for three months” because of the illness.

“We try to make up time off when we are in our courtrooms so we don’t have to call in visiting judges,” Judge Christiansen said. “You end up doing the same amount of work; you just get to another day of cases you wouldn’t normally have.”

Keeping track?

The assignment commissioner’s handwritten notes from 2011 show that Judge Christiansen took 38 days “off” and there were 22 days marked for when a visiting judge covered his duties. There were no sick days listed that year. An accounting of visiting judge days provided by presiding Judge Michael Goulding shows that Judge Christiansen used 24 days of visiting judges to cover him — not the 22 as written in the so-called “red book.”

The seven municipal judges are on a seven-week rotation. During that seven-week period, they have three weeks of mandatory court.

That includes a week of felony arraignment, misdemeanor arraignment, and “duties,” which include things such as a bench warrant case, handling open warrant cases, search warrants, and even weddings.

The judges also have four weeks during that seven-week period for their own assigned caseloads within their own courtrooms.

The assignment commissioner’s calendar book for 2009 shows a number of days off for Judge Gorman with the notation “unofficial day off” and “do not memo.”

The same notation is made for that judge on Aug. 5, 2011, and Oct. 21, 2011, and for Judge Amy Berling on Aug. 8, 2011, it said “off, do not do memo.”

Judge Gorman said he had no knowledge of those records and that they were unauthorized.

“That is certainly not an authorized document. The judges authorize the assignment commissioner to record those memos when the judges are not there and everyone is sent a copy,” he said. “I have never heard of an entry made that says ‘do not copy to the judge.’ That was not authorized.”

Judge Gorman also said that for 24 years he always called the assignment commissioner every fall to be certain he was not exceeding his vacation time.

“I don’t know what she is talking about,” he said. “I don’t know how to respond to something I have never seen and I don’t know if they are accurate or not.”

Ms. Woods did not return calls for comment.

View from the bench

Judge Gorman said the visiting judge days also can be misleading because even though one or more of the seven elected municipal judges may have a visiting judge assigned to cover for him or her on a certain day, that judge could in fact be in the court that day.

“Things get canceled,” Judge Gorman said. “It has happened to me, and we had a policy that if we ask a visiting judge to come in, we don’t cancel. That has not happened a lot, but it has happened.”

Most days chronicled in the assignment commissioner calendar book indicated that a memo had been written about the day off or if there was use of a visiting judge. However, a public records request in early January by The Blade for all documents related to judges’ days off did not produce any such memos.

In 2009, Judge Gorman was “off” 24 days and visiting judges covered for him another 21 days, according to the handwritten notes in the assignment commissioner’s calendar.

During that year, February was the only month the judge was not listed as missing a day in the calendar book.

But the official accounting of visiting judge days provided by Judge Goulding shows that Judge Gorman used a visiting judge to cover for him for 24 days, and that did include a visiting judge day on Feb. 27.

Judge Gorman said he put in his required time on the bench and that he served as a visiting judge in Napoleon and in Paulding County at the request of the Ohio Supreme Court.

“It is a fairly stressful job and you want to get out of there,” he said. “That is one of the reasons the state legislature gives us 30 days. I don’t think anyone has ever said judges don’t get enough vacation days.”

Cost to taxpayers

Taxpayers pay $456.40 a day for the use of a visiting judge, which is in addition to the judges’ $114,000 annual salary and statutorily ensured 30 days of paid time off.

In 2010, the court as a whole was over its budget for visiting judges “by a significant number,” according to a memo from Judge Goulding, who then asked his fellow judges to limit the practice and instead cover each other’s duties more often.

In 2010, there were 117 visiting judge days paid to cover the Toledo Municipal judges plus another 14 days of special assignments by visiting judges.

The following year, after Judge Goulding’s plea, it was cut to 94 days paid to cover the Toledo Municipal judges plus another 19 days of special assignments by visiting judges.

Judge C. Allen McConnell said he used all 30 vacation days last year and “very few sick days.”

“I am probably in court more than anyone else,” he said. “ I have two dockets — housing and criminal and traffic.”

He said his visiting judge days are all acceptable uses.

“I would suspect 10 of those would relate to judges’ meetings,” Judge McConnell said.

The Ohio Supreme Court, which oversees the Ohio courts and establishes policies and procedures, focuses on case flow management and guidelines for cases to be decided in a timely manner, said Christ Davey, spokesman for the Supreme Court.

“That is the main performance monitoring mechanism that is in place in the rules governing Ohio courts, as set forth by the Supreme Court of Ohio,” Mr. Davey said. “When you are asking about the physical presence of a judge in the court, that is not something that there is some sort of monitoring system in place. What is measured for performance in the administration of justice, is timeliness.”

Councilman objects

Toledo Councilman D. Michael Collins last month demanded in a meeting with Judge Goulding that the court cut its proposed budget for 2012 and freeze it at 2011 levels.

Days later, the court agreed to give up $350,000 to help fund the recruitment of 30 new police officers for the city. The court’s proposed 2012 budget was $8.15 million before the cutback, up from $7.82 million in 2011.

In recent years, the court’s budget has either swelled or held steady while the city’s budget has been slashed every year since 2008, and the city pays a portion of the cost for the court — including a percentage of the judges’ salaries. The county and the state cover the rest.

“I have served in the capacity of my four years of elected office as chairman of the law and criminal justice committee and the Municipal Court falls under my responsibility,” Mr. Collins said.

“For four years I have questioned the budget process for the court and every year has resulted in a contentious budget meeting and ultimately being accused by Judge Kuhlman, the previous presiding judge, of trying to micromanage the court, which was never my goal or thought.”

Mr. Collins, chairman of council’s public safety, law, and criminal justice committee, said The Blade review of judges’ attendance supports his position that “there was a cavalier approach to handling the treasury of the city of Toledo.”

“The mayor’s office asked us not to exceed a 5 percent increase and it is a 4.95 percent increase from 2011 to 2012,” Judge Goulding said of the original proposed 2012 budget.

A memo earlier this month from Judge Goulding to Mr. Collins pointed out that the judge used 15½ vacation days in 2010, of which 2½ days were used to sit on the bench in the municipal courts of Napoleon, Bryan, and Defiance. Half of the vacation days also were used during the birth of his son that year, the letter said.

He used 11 vacation days in 2011, of which 1½ days in Napoleon and another two were necessitated by his son’s hospitalization.

The handwritten 2011 notes from the assignment commissioner say Judge Goulding had 13 days “off,” that year, one sick day, and 15 days for when a visiting judge was used in his place, which is one more than the number of days recorded in the official record.

“We have been on a very austere belt-tightening for a number of years and as a result we have let crucial positions go unfilled,” Judge Goulding said. “Personnel is the driver. Can we buy less toner? We are already pretty thin on office supplies.”

Billings for security alone at Municipal Court, which is handled by Lucas County sheriff’s deputies and paid for by the city, totaled $1.6 million in 2011 and an additional $215,383 for overtime. The figures in 2010 were nearly $1.76 million and another $251,685 for overtime.

Mr. Collins said that money was split among one sergeant and 19 deputies, meaning the average for each last year was more than $10,000 each.

The councilman is scrutinizing the cost of the municipal clerk’s office, where the clerk, Vallie Bowman-English, is paid $96,985 a year plus benefits.

“I think you will find their budget has increased every year the past five years even though when they gave their budget analysis for 2011 they said there would be huge savings, but that never happened,” Mr. Collins said.

According to clerk office records, its budget was actually up and down. Its 2012 proposed budget is $5.65 million compared to $5.68 million in 2011. The budget in 2010 was $5.47 million; in 2009 it was $5.26 million, and in 2008 it was $5.56 million.

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171.



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