Whether or not to create a Magistrate Court in Oak Hill led to a long discussion when Village Council met Tuesday, June 8 in regular session.
The primary participants in the discussion were Jackson County Municipal Court Chief Bailiff Ray Venatter, Court Community Service Coordinator Joann Davis Court Clerk Diana Morris and Linda Warner, who is an attorney from Pomeroy who brought the idea to the attention of Council two weeks ago.
Venatter and Davis were on hand to discuss the implications to the Municipal Court if the village sets up a Magistrate Court, where the judge is a licensed attorney and replaces the mayor. Under a magistrate system, Venatter explained, the village would have to organize its own probation and community service department through the Magistrate Court. The county, he added, would not have jurisdiction and could not provide community service workers as it currently has been doing.
"A Magistrate Court here would greatly affect what we can do for you," Venatter stated. "If Oak Hill pulls out, we would have to lay off two officers even though the village police department writes 24 tickets per week." He also pointed out the Municipal Court supplies the village with workers on garbage trucks saving the village $20,000 a year. The Court also helps the village, he added, on paying for female prisoners and with vehicle forfeiture fees.
Some of those tickets, Venatter explained, can be written in village code, as opposed to the state code, with minor offenses being written in village code. The Municipal Court is offering officers training on how to write tickets in a way that would better benefit the village. On the village code, Oak Hill gets 100 percent of the fine, minus a portion of the court costs that go to the county and state.
Police Chief Phil Spence said the officers are writing under both state and village code. He suggested the officers should be educated on what offenses to write under village code and which under state code. Councilman Roy McCarty asked how many classes would be necessary. Spence stated the officers pick up on procedure pretty quickly and the training should go relatively fast.
Venatter pointed out Oak Hill has more auxiliary officers that any other police department in the county and could have coverage in place while police train on these issues. Reports have to be done once a month and be sent in to the state.
"We can make a lot more money by the way we write the tickets," Venatter added. Village Solicitor Jack Detty explained this is something the officer really does not learn at the Police Academy so the training would be good.
Another way to save money, via manhours, is to conduct video arraignments in Oak Hill, which the Court has the equipment to do. He believes the Judge would be willing to allow it as it would save the police department manhours. With video arraignments, the chief would not have to send officers to Jackson, on some occasions, saving gas and mileage.
Court Clerk Diana Morris pointed out how much work is involved in a magistrate system. Venatter pointed out kiosk machines could be installed to pay fines.
Under a magistrate system, Morris explained, the village keeps fines and most of the court costs. She added, though, the clerk has a very difficult job. The clerk, she explained, has to keep a docket, a Supreme Court report, codes listed with every case, and a distribution of funds report. Even under a magistrate system, she adds, some cases may go to the Municipal Court anyway and some money also goes to the county and state.
Attorney Warner said a Magistrate Court is expensive, but not quite as complex an undertaking as the county officials pointed out, while still agreeing with them on some basic points. She pointed out the Magistrate Court is not going to hear felonies, OVI/DWI cases other than first offense, so many would go to the Municipal Court automatically. She explained the clerk can receive free training through the Ohio Supreme Court. More offenders want a day court arraignment or to make a payment agreement.
The Village of Pomeroy, she adds, keeps the process informal and the police often prosecute their own cases. In Pomeroy, the number of cases is much higher, primarily due to alcohol-related offenses and makes the logs higher than it would be in Oak Hill. She also provided information on sliding scale fees. She also works with people and tries to help them under a review process.
It may be, Warner added, cost-prohibitive to create a Magistrate Court in Oak Hill. A large number of tickets from Pomeroy come from bars so it drives the numbers to a much higher level. She would hate to see a revenue cut to the Municipal Court.
"Oak Hill would have to make an assessment and see if it is feasible to go to a Magistrate Court or stay with the Municipal Court," she said.
Council made no decision, but Mayor Paul McNeal explained this was an information-gathering session and said the village would consider all the points made.
The Village Council will meet June 22 at 7:30 p.m.