South Euclid hopes to merge its municipal court after judge leaves

SOUTH EUCLID, Ohio — City Council President Ruth Gray said council will meet soon to discuss the possibility of merging South Euclid City Court with another court.

Gray said State Sen. Kenny Yuko, D-25, and State Rep. Kent Smith, D-8, would be invited to the full committee meeting, during which the “sharing court” will be discussed.

The City Council in 2016 and again earlier this year sent a resolution to state legislators and the Ohio Supreme Court asking them to consider disbanding the South Euclid City Court and merging it with another local court.

The request came as council for the past few years disagreed with spending by South Euclid Municipal Court and former judge Gayle Williams-Byers.

City’s tumultuous relationship with Williams-Byers ended when she resigned from the bench in early August. It was then announced on August 9 that she was planning to co-star in an upcoming TV show starring well-known judge Greg Mathis.

After that, on August 16, it was learned that the FBI had subpoenaed Williams-Byers’ files on how she ran the court and her finances.

“We are now at the point where we know that the towns around us have multiple towns feeding into one court,” Gray told fellow council members Monday (Sept. 12).

“It makes no sense that South Euclid, with a declining population, has one court for one city.

“This (merger) is a way to save money and be fiscally (responsible) and do the right thing for our city. So we’re going to have conversations with our reps so they can go back to Columbus and start the process and do the feasibility study that would have to be done to get this done in South Euclid,” she said.

“I invite the community to come meet us at the next full committee meeting and discuss it.”

Since the departure of Williams-Byers, retired judge Harry Fields, of Willoughby, has been on the bench almost every day, while other judges have also replaced.

Mayor Georgine Welo, during Monday’s council meeting, thanked Chief Legal Officer Michael Lograsso for his work over the past few weeks in ensuring the court had what it needed to continue.

“Thank you for your leadership during the upheaval of our justice system,” Welo told Lograsso. “Your years of experience working in other municipal courts and prosecutions have really helped these visiting judges deal with the chaos and incompetence of Gayle Williams-Byers’ reign.

“I can’t thank you enough. You were professional. You’ve held all of our hands, the hands of judges and prosecutors, and I don’t think people realize the talents you bring.

His voice cracking, Welo said, “I’m getting a little emotional, but it’s been a tough month, everyone. And I have to thank Michael for kind of being the glue of it all.

Welo also thanked Director of Community Services and City Council Clerk Keith Benjamin for his work collecting all of the files requested by the FBI. Benjamin and Lograsso both said they were unsure if the FBI had responded to his requests or if they would search the former judge’s records further.

Following the meeting, Lograsso said that in the Nov. 8 election, former South Euclid prosecutor Tim Sterkel is running as the only candidate to become the next South Euclid Municipal Court judge. Sterkel, he said, resigned as prosecutor so he could run for judge.

Sterkel would serve a year as a judge, serving the remainder of Williams-Byers’ term. In November 2023, the regular election would be held to select a judge for the next six-year term.

However, any type of mandate depends on the state’s decision to merge the court with another. If a merger is to take place, it will be entirely the decision of the state.

New CFO

Also at Monday’s council meeting, Welo introduced Amy Himmelein as the city’s new chief financial officer. She replaces the person who held this position for six years, Brenda Wendt. Wendt left to serve as comptroller in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

Himmelein, a Wickliffe resident, served as Cleveland Heights’ chief financial officer for the past two years. She also worked as a comptroller for Cuyahoga County and, before that, with Cleveland Metroparks. In total, she has been in government for 23 years.

When asked what attracted her to the South Euclid post, she replied: ‘I think of its stability, Mayor Welo having been here for so long (18 years as mayor). Cleveland Heights just changed its form of government (to an elected mayor from a city manager).

“After sitting down and talking with the mayor (Welo), I really liked what she had to say and wanted to be a part of it.”

The new council digs

City Council had not met in person until Monday since February 2020. It held its Monday meeting at the newly renovated South Euclid Community Center, 1370 Victory Drive.

With a large screen on the wall, some residents and Councilor Chanell Elston participated remotely.

Benjamin said it’s unclear if the community center will remain the location for city council meetings. The town hall has also been renovated.

Council meetings, through February 2020, had been held in the South Euclid Municipal Courtroom on the second floor of City Hall.

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Melissa C. Keyes