Belmont County officials are working to resolve the dilemma surrounding the planned consolidation of the Eastern and Northern division courts.
This year, county officials had planned to consolidate the courts after learning that current Eastern Division Court Judge William Davis will be retiring at the end of this year. County commissioners had estimated that the move would save the county money, but the Belmont County Bar Association had voiced opposition to the plan, noting the state pays for a majority of the judges' salaries and contending the move would not save a significant amount of money, if any.
Attorneys argued the increased case load for one judge at the newly constructed Eastern Division Court building in Bellaire would require the county to hire a magistrate, which cannot be paid through the same means that elected judges are paid. Additionally, three local attorneys have filed for candidacy in hopes of filling the seat currently occupied by Judge Davis. Yet, the county had already submitted a request through state legislators to have the one judges' position eliminated - which is required by law.
During Wednesday's meeting of the Belmont County Commissioners, board president Ginny Favede announced the board has discussed the issue and wished to resolve it for now, especially in light of the fact that three attorneys - Charles Bean, David Trouten and John Vavra - are running for the office.
"It's unfair to these candidates and particularly to the voters," said Favede. "We can't let them vote for a candidate and then take the position away. We feel we can't participate in a situation that will disenfranchise voters."
Timing appeared to have been a key to the plan to consolidate the courts. The board had hoped that the state legislators would have met again in a summer session to act on the measure. However, it remained unclear whether or not legislators would meet in special session this fall, and three candidates had already filed for candidacy.
Favede said that once a bill of this nature is submitted on the state level, it cannot be pulled. However, officials have spoken to Ohio Rep. John Domenick and have indicated they needed the bill to die as a result of a lack of action.
"We've made a decision to put a stop to it," said Favede. "The court consolidation will not take place, and we will continue to have a judge for Eastern Division Court. There will be an election and a new judge will take office at the beginning of the year."
Despite the lack of court consolidation, there will be some cost savings because of the opening of the new Eastern Division Court building in Bellaire, where the Northern Division Court now operates as well after being moved from its former location in Martins Ferry.
Some files and records, as well as space, has been consolidated as a result of the recent move.
Favede said the county will still be looking at possible court consolidation in the future, however, and said the board has asked the bar association to form a committee to make recommendations surrounding court issues and potential cost savings.
"Belmont County is one of 13 counties out of the 88 counties in Ohio that still use the divisional court system," said Favede. "The state Supreme Court wants to see consolidations."
Officials said the proposal needs to be studied and considered in the future.
In other action Wednesday, the board: