LISBON - The simmering dispute over courthouse security boiled over Wednesday, with Columbiana County Commissioner Mike Halleck and county Common Pleas Court Judge C. Ashley Pike exchanging barbs and insults during a contentious meeting on the issue.
"I feel as welcome as a (illegitimate child) at a family reunion," Pike told commissioners at the conclusion of the lengthy meeting with them to discuss the board's plans to scrap the existing courthouse security committee and policy.
Pike asked to be placed on the meeting agenda to discuss the situation after receiving a letter last Friday from commissioners advising him they planned to go ahead with rescinding the security policy adopted in 2009 and replacing it with a new policy that leaves judges out of the process. They did just that earlier in the meeting prior to the judge's appointment with them.
The discussion began with Pike describing the history behind the current security system and how he believes it has operated in an effective and cost-efficient manner. He said if there were any problems commissioners should have contacted him or other security committee members rather than taking it upon themselves to make any changes.
"You all know where I am. I've been on the second floor for 12 years," he said.
Pike was also displeased commissioners only gave him five days advance notice and then approved the policy change before he even had a chance to speak with them.
"I feel like I'm being bullied and I don't like it. That isn't the way I do things," he said, adding any "sense of decency and respect for the court went out the window" when Halleck changed the policy for issuing magnetic security swipe cards without telling anyone.
Halleck said they sent the letter as a courtesy. "What can we do to please you? We're not going to come up and kiss your ring," he said.
Pike also noted that Commissioner Jim Hoppel was the only board member left from 2009 who signed the security policy agreement that is being repealed.
"I guess he was for it before he was against it," Pike said of Hoppel, a reference to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's infamous statement about voting for a bill to fund the Iraqi war before voting against it, which contributed to his negative portrayal as "flip-flopping" on the issues.
In their letter to Pike, commissioners noted all of the 30-plus Ohio counties they contacted either used sheriff's deputies or private security firms to provide courthouse security, and in every instance the commissioners in those counties crafted the policy.
"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a (darn) what they do in other counties," Pike said. "Do other counties have a jail that is privatized?"
Halleck, the architect behind privatization of the county jail, told Pike to get to the point instead of pleading his case to the news media.
"You're trying to spin your way out of this," Halleck said, adding the real issue is whether the current security policy violates state law. Commissioners say they are merely bringing the county into compliance with state law, which states the sheriff is responsible for courthouse security, "under the direction and control of commissioners," although the judges retain authority over their courtrooms.
Commissioners interpret this to mean the judges can set security policy for the second floor, which is where the courtrooms are located, while the sheriff and commissioners are responsible for the rest of the courthouse.
The current system consists of security stations located at the courthouse entrance and on the second floor where the courtrooms are located. The stations are staffed by a security staff consisting of retired police officers and officers from local police departments, all of whom are employed part-time.
This was done instead of using sheriff's deputies to save money. Deputies are paid much more, and the sheriff's union contract prohibits the use of part-time deputies in any capacity.
Halleck maintains that much of what Pike was saying was incorrect or misleading.
"This isn't the truth and you know it," Halleck said.
"If you want to call me a liar in public that's up to you," Pike responded.
"Quit playing semantics," Halleck fired backing, saying Pike has accused him of acting unilaterally on the security issue, describing it as a "buzzword" to discredit him.
"Well, do you know the buzzword 'arrogant'? When I came back here someone asked me and said, 'Have you been up to the land of Oz.' And I said, 'What is the land of Oz? That's where the wizard presides," Halleck told Pike. "Let me tell you, since I've been back here there is not one judge except you I've had any problems with."
Halleck and Pike are both Republicans, as are the other county judges.
Commissioners then talked about some of the problems they have found with the security system. Halleck knows of an instance where members of the security staff entered the commissioners office without their knowledge, so the board had the locks changed.
Hoppel was concerned about the practice of the security staff neglecting to screen someone a second time if they left and returned the same day. He knows of one instance when this happened with a "scruffy looking man" attending a murder trial.
"He could have been disgruntled. He could have gone out to a car and gotten a weapon," Hoppel said.
All of this was news to Pike and chief of security Pat Mango, who also attended the meeting.
Hoppel also believes it is unnecessary to have two security officers assigned to the first-floor security station. "I just think we've gone overboard on the amount of security," he said.
At one point Halleck told Pike he knows who the judge met with in advance of yesterday's meeting.
"So you had me followed?" Pike asked.
"Quit being silly. You're sitting here playing, trying to spin things," Halleck replied, indicating people provide him with unsolicited information about the court's inner workings.
"You have a lot of people that are afraid of you because you're a judge, plain and simple," he said.
"I find that hard to believe," Pike said.
"Where do you think I get some of this information? You think I invented this?" Halleck said. To make his point, Halleck referred to an email Pike reportedly sent to his staff that was forwarded to him. The email told the court staff to be careful about catching sexually transmitted diseases from public restrooms and watch out for tornadoes during their weekend off.
Pike said afterwards he often sends out internal emails to court staff intended to be humorous, and this particular one was in reference to an office joke about using public restrooms at festivals. "I think maintaining a sense of humor is important with the work we do," he said, adding Halleck only brought it up as part of his "personal attack" on him.
"Apparently, somebody didn't think it was funny. This was sent to me anonymously," Halleck said.
Halleck found it absurd that Pike's policy restricts security cards to only those county employees who work in the courthouse and not to other county employees or elected officials whose jobs periodically bring them to the courthouse.
"Do you think Bert Dawson is a threat to the courthouse?" Halleck asked, referring to the long-time county engineer who had his card revoked after Pike learned Halleck had changed the policy.
Pike said Ohio Supreme Court, as part of its security policy, recommends counties limit security cards to courthouse employees only. He noted Dawson never used the card during the five months prior to it being revoked.
"This is not a gentlemen's club," Pike said.
"I think the gentlemen's club starts upstairs, doesn't it" Halleck replied.
At various times during the meeting, Halleck and Pike tried to loudly talk over each other until Hoppel and Commissioner John Payne reminded them to keep it civil.
Halleck said they want Pike to rescind the court order he issued restricting security cards to courthouse employees. Commissioners voted earlier in the meeting to retain legal counsel if necessary to fight Pike in court if he fails to acquiesce of any of the changes.
"We don't have to argue and say bad things about each other," Halleck said.
"It's a little too late for that," Pike said.
"That's clever, but I guess sometimes being a judge your ego gets in the way of common sense," Halleck said.
He said afterward their plan would be to retain the security staff but make them commissioner employees, but they would work under the direct supervision of the sheriff.