CUYAHOGA FALLS — A decade after the mayor’s court was set up, the city’s leader says he believes the court is fulfilling its original purpose, though there continue to be concerns about such entities.

The first case in the Cuyahoga Falls Mayor’s Court in the municipal building at 2310 Second St. was heard in January 2009.

Mayor Don Walters was a Ward 6 city council representative when the mayor’s court was established by his predecessor, Mayor Don Robart. Walters said the municipal court had outgrown its space inside the municipal building.

"So, it was either expand the space here at city hall or find another location," said Walters. "[The municipal court] found another location and moved to Stow. I believe at that time the previous administration felt that it was an opportunity for us to have a mayor’s court just for our city."

Walters said the court was set up as a convenience for people who are cited for traffic offenses and minor misdemeanors in the city and because municipal officials felt the court could offer lower court costs than the municipal court.

Since being established 10-plus years ago, the mayor’s court has seen a decline in its caseload, but revenues continue to cover expenses, and the mayor said he plans to have the court’s operation continue for the foreseeable future.

Here’s a look at the Cuyahoga Falls Mayor’s Court’s operations, finances, advantages and disadvantages.

Court operations

The mayor’s court operates in a section of the first floor of the south side of the municipal building at 2310 Second St. The court handles minor misdemeanor traffic and criminal offenses, first time OVI cases, housing, and parking violations. Court is in session on Mondays and Thursdays starting at 2 p.m.

People who are charged with an offense that will be handled by the Cuyahoga Falls Mayor’s Court are required to appear and their case will be adjudicated if they plead guilty. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the case will be transferred to Stow Municipal Court. The defendants must appear in mayor’s court even if they intend to plead not guilty and have their case sent to municipal court. In 2018, 76 cases were sent to Stow, while 94 and 93 cases were forwarded to Stow in 2017 and 2016, respectively. This year, about 82 have been moved to Stow Municipal Court.

Andrea Conti serves as clerk of court and Hope Labbe is the deputy clerk. Attorneys Brian Ashton and John Fickes work as magistrates.

Walters said Conti does "a phenomenal job" running the mayor’s court, noting that "a lot of reporting and oversight" is required in the position.

In her five years with the court, Conti said she has implemented some changes. There is now a drop box in the police department lobby, which allows offenders to turn in fine payments any time of day or night.

She noted a second window was installed in the clerk’s office that provided another location for court defendants to pay their fines. Conti noted she works in one window and Labbe works in the other one, and said the additional window make the process more "smooth." Previously, the two employees worked out of the same window.

Advantages of mayor’s court

The mayor’s court costs that the offender must pay are lower than the municipal court’s costs.

"We do not have as wide a variety of additional costs [as the municipal court does]," said Conti.

Cuyahoga Falls city spokesperson Kelli Crawford-Smith said the city receives positive feedback regarding the lower court costs.

For traffic offenses such as following too closely or failure to stop at a stop sign, the fine is $30 and the court cost is $74 in the Cuyahoga Falls Mayor’s Court.

In Stow Municipal Court, the basic court costs for these same offenses would total $106, according to Jon Turney, bailiff for the municipal court. Turney added that fines can range from $10 up to $150 depending on the severity of the situation and the defendant’s driving record.

"I would guess that most fines are around $50," he said.

With mayor’s courts, Turney said the cities keep the majority or all of the fine money. In contrast, the municipal court returns the fine money it collects to "whichever community charged the offense," Turney said.

Walters described the court process as "quick," "easy," and "convenient." Conti said she often has defendants tell her "that was painless" after their cases are adjudicated. In cases involving housing code violations, Walters noted the court will sometimes waive a fine if the defendant commits to improving their property.

"We would much rather waive a fine if you’re going to bring in a receipt for paint and you’re going to paint your garage and that’s what you were cited for," said Walters. "We can be very creative here because we have a common goal to get the property maintained."

Crawford-Smith said the city’s housing inspectors and attorneys "work closer" with people who have the housing violations "to help them bring their homes up to code." She added that the money is better spent if it’s used to bring the house up to code.

Mayor’s court’s impact on municipal court

Walters said the mayor’s court helped reduce the municipal court’s caseload.

However, Stow Municipal Court Judge Kim Hoover noted he felt that mayor’s courts are a "hindrance" to his court’s operations.

"[Mayor’s courts] siphon away cases of minimal complexity in favor of profit generation and they send everything else that requires the investment of time and resources to the municipal court," said Hoover. "The cases heard in the mayors’ courts are mostly minor traffic offenses that could easily be handled by the municipal court."

Walters also noted that while he must regularly complete mayor’s court training, he said he will never preside over a court session.

"I have never been on the bench and never would [do it]," said Walters. "We want that separation…Our two magistrates are attorneys. That’s the way you keep that separation … I’d rather have an attorney on the bench."

Hoover said mayor’s courts "deprive citizens of the fairness that they are entitled to in a court of law" because the structure itself is not a fair setup.

"Mayor’s courts have been outlawed in 48 states because it is unfair to have the mayor of a community hire the police who charge crimes, the prosecutors who prosecute the charges, and the magistrates who adjudicate cases," said Hoover. "All three parties along with the mayor have a vested interest in the revenue that is generated from the fines and court costs that are levied as penalties in cases before them."

In contrast, Hoover said an accused person in a municipal court has his or her case heard by an "objective" judge or magistrate who was not appointed by the same leader who hired the police officers and prosecutors.

Though he objects to the concept of a mayor’s court, Hoover noted he felt the Cuyahoga Falls prosecutors are "fine people," and the city’s police officers are "consummate professionals."

Caseload, fines issued drop

The number of cases handled by the mayor’s court have, for the most part, declined since Walters became mayor in 2014. During Robart’s last three years in office, the court handled 9,078 cases in 2011, 7,902 in 2012, and 9,790 in 2013. The court has never handled more than 7,000 cases annually in the five complete years since Walters became the city’s leader in 2014. The court adjudicated 6,983 cases in 2016, 6,766 in 2017 and 5,715 in 2018. This year, the number is approximately, 5,800.

Walters said the decline in the caseload is due to the police department’s traffic enforcement efforts being focused more on the neighborhoods rather than along Route 8. The mayor noted he and council members receive a lot of complaints about issues such as stop sign violations and speeding in neighborhoods. Police officers have been instructed to concentrate their efforts in the neighborhoods in an effort to alleviate these problems. Speed enforcement efforts still occur along Route 8, but Walters noted when officers have idle time, they are being asked to concentrate on the neighborhoods.

This shift in the enforcement means "there’s less volume of cars and less violations when there’s less traffic," said Walters.

The mayor noted that while overall traffic stops are on the rise, officers have issued more warnings and fewer overall traffic citations. There are some caveats, however, as the mayor noted that the increased amount of stops have led to more citations for OVI and Driving Under Suspension, as well as more cases of arresting someone on a warrant.

"The [traffic] stops being up means we’re being more productive, but we’re not just meeting a quota," said Walters.

With the caseload number dropping, the amount of fines and court costs collected have correspondingly declined. Despite this trend, revenues are still exceeding expenses. In 2017, mayor’s court revenues were $428,009 and expenses came in at $169,025, according to city finance records. In 2018, mayor’s court revenues tallied $354,887 and expenses were $174,735. In 2019, as of Nov. 30, revenues came in at $290,795 and expenses were $174,419, said Crawford-Smith.

Expenses have increased due to pay raises given to the court’s two full-time employees and two part-time workers, Walters said.

During city council’s budget discussions in November, Council member Mary Ellen Pyke (R-2) raised concerns about the decline in revenue taken in by the court.

"These are significant decreases," Pyke said. "Is it something we need to look at?"

Pyke added she was concerned that each year the city is "funding a mayor’s court and every year, there’s a decrease in the amount of money [we take in]. I just think it’s something that we need to take a look at."

No one else commented on the issue at the council meeting in November, but Walters later said the court’s revenues were covering its expenses.

City Council President Mary Nichols-Rhodes (D-4) said she felt the mayor’s court offered "a convenient location for Cuyahoga Falls residents, reasonable court costs…is less intimidating than bigger courts, and is able to offer creative penalties."

Crawford-Smith said there are no changes planned in the mayor’s court.

For more information on the mayor’s court, visit www.cityofcf.com/departments/mayors-court.

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, pkeren@recordpub.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.