Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal

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Wednesday, February 19, 1997



Beacon Journal staff writer

In her battle to oust a fellow Republican from the Summit County Juvenile Court bench last year, Judith Hunter criticized Judge Saundra J. Robinson for running her court with rude and unprofessional employees.

Hunter vowed to clean house.

Since taking office on Dec. 31, she has done just that, replacing about 15 percent of the court's 100 or so full-time and 30 part-time workers, with at least a few more changes still to come.

Regardless of whether Hunter's sweeping personnel changes ultimately improve the court, they already have had one immediate effect: They have transformed the racial makeup of the court's staff.

Many of the workers who have left -- 12 out of 22 -- are black and almost all of those brought on board since Jan. 1 are white.

Only two of the 20 people Hunter has hired since taking office are black, according to county records.

One, a deputy clerk, stayed only a few weeks before leaving to take a post with the county auditor. The other is listed as a part-time "laundry/kitchen worker" and is paid $6.50 an hour, according to county records.

All of Hunter's new senior administrators are white, including her court administrator, finance officer, chief clerk, chief probation officer, judicial secretary, court coordinator, two magistrates and a court psychologist.

The only black retained in a senior post is veteran Magistrate Jacqueline A. Silas-Butler. Two other black magistrates have left since Hunter took office. One was fired; the other retired.

Hunter did keep a few of Robinson's central office staff, including her judicial secretary and head clerk. But both were demoted.

Hunter denied any racial bias in her staff changes.

"Folks who know me know the color of one's skin is not an issue with me," she said. Hunter said that even after the changes, blacks make up more than a third of the court's work force, compared to about 12 percent of the county's population.

Hunter said she is concerned about the lack of blacks on her administrative staff and had planned to have at least one African-American represented. She offered the post of financial director to a black man, a long-time political supporter, but he took a higher-paying job with a law firm instead.

"I couldn't meet the salary they were offering," Hunter said.

Hunter acknowledged that the lack of blacks in her administration runs counter to Republican efforts -- obvious in the choice of featured speakers at last year's presidential convention -- to portray the party as a "big tent" that welcomes African-Americans and other minority groups.

But Hunter said she had no choice. No other blacks were considered for top-level posts because none applied for the jobs.

After her election, Hunter said she received more than 100 resumes and interviewed about 75 applicants.

"It was no calculated plan to remove blacks from the higher level," she said. "They weren't available to me. I interviewed based on the applications that came in. ... I don't remember interviewing minorities."

Hunter said she did not solicit blacks, or anyone else, to apply. She relied on word of mouth and publicity about her election victory to spread the news.

Hunter's hiring pattern has upset many of the court's former employees, who complain that the new judge is turning back the clock.

"When I was hired in '91, there were no blacks in upper-level positions," said Herbert Johnson, the court's former personnel manager who was hired by Robinson, the county's first black juvenile court judge.

Johnson said that in the six years he worked for Robinson, the overall proportion of blacks in the court's work force went from 33 to 39 percent, with most of the increase coming in the administrative and professional ranks.

In addition to Johnson's post, high-level administrative jobs held by blacks under Robinson included finance director, superintendent of detention and chief clerk.

Johnson and several others among Robinson's top staff said they have no gripe about losing their posts.

"It's expected that the top people will change, because they want their own people around them," said one fired administrator who asked not to be identified because she hopes to be a public employee again someday. "But this is different.

"Why didn't she hire in any blacks into the professional positions? Maybe it's not illegal, but it's not right. Saundra Robinson hired blacks and whites. It wasn't just blacks."

Two of Robinson's top appointments who were white -- a magistrate and the court psychologist -- also were fired. Another white magistrate transferred to the county engineer's department and the chief probation officer, who was white, retired.

"Certainly judges have the authority to hire people they want," said Robinson, who has since opened a private law practice.

But Robinson said the lack of blacks in authority will hurt the court's standing in the African-American community.

Robinson estimated that more than half the youths who appear in court, both those charged with delinquency and victims of neglect and abuse, are black.

"The perception of those people going through the court is that things aren't fair," Robinson said. Top officials aren't the only ones who were let go by Hunter.

On Jan. 17, Hunter fired six deputy clerks, nearly half of the court's staff. Five of the six are black.

Also last month, three black youth counselors at the county detention home got the ax.

Johnson contended that firings of the lower-level workers were politically motivated to make room for people considered by Hunter, the former Akron Municipal clerk of court, to be more loyal to her campaign or the Republican Party.

Johnson is no stranger to partisan politics. In 1988, while working as the local coordinator for the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, he was banned for 20 months from working for any local or state agency after the U.S. Merit Systems Board ruled that he coerced AMHA employees into contributing to the Republican Party.

In addition to Johnson, Robinson hired several others with political connections, including Chris Arshinkoff, brother of Summit Republican Party Chairman Alex Arshinkoff.

Some of Hunter's hires also have GOP ties. Her new administrative assistant, David C. Reilly, is the son-in-law of Chris Arshinkoff, who had transferred from the juvenile court to become Probate Judge W.F. Spicer's bailiff in 1995. Maureen Murphy, the new court coordinator, is the daughter of Common Pleas Judge James E. Murphy.

Johnson said he has no problem with elected officials hiring party loyalists for their "top team," but he argued that "entry-level people shouldn't be judged by political standards."

Johnson said Robinson didn't clear out all the Democrats who held lower-level positions when she took office in 1991, after upsetting Judge John E. Vuillemin.

Despite widespread talk that Robinson had cleaned house, only 10 full-time employees -- mostly top administrators -- had been replaced after her first year in office.

Johnson and other former administrators also objected to the way the lower-level employees were fired.

The clerks, who were paid between $17,000 and $24,000 annually, were fired without formal notice.

Although Hunter had made it clear that she planned personnel changes and had all staff members interviewed, the firings were abrupt. The workers were given their walking papers at the end of the workday Jan. 17 and were told to clean out their desks and leave. A sheriff's deputy was assigned to watch.

"He had to stand there and watch us," said one of the fired clerks, who asked that she not be identified further. "We were made to feel like we were criminals."

The clerk said she pressed for an explanation of why she was fired.

She said she was first told that she "wasn't creative," lacked a "can-do" attitude and had been rude to the public.

When she protested that she had nothing but good evaluations and had a reputation in the office as one of the most courteous clerks, she said she was told, "All in all, you just don't fit the judge's profile." Hunter said the deputy sheriff was assigned to oversee the clerks' departure to ensure "a safe and orderly termination procedure."

"There was concern that there may be some kind of emotional reaction by the clerks," she said.

© Copyright 1998 The Akron Beacon Journal

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