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‘Seamless transition’ vs. ‘New perspective’

Subtle differences come out in judge candidate forum

cand-forum-bratka 1025 cand-forum-hawkins 1025

Logan County Family Court candidates Dan Bratka, left, and Bridget Hawkins, right, took the stage Wednesday to answer questions at the Logan County Branch of the American Association of University Women’s candidate forum. (EXAMINER PHOTOS | REUBEN MEES)

Logan County Family Court judge candidate Dan Bratka has said he would provide a “seamless transition” if elected Nov. 6, while his challenger Bridget Hawkins has said she would offer a “new perspective and fresh outlook.”

Voters who attended a Wednesday evening forum hosted by the American Association of University Women got to hear a little more about what that means.

“There are problems with how things are docketed and the attorneys know what they can get away with,” Ms. Hawkins said in response to a question posed by moderator Judy Wherry on perceived backlogs within the court.

“We need to give attorneys 30 minutes of negotiation before a hearing and if they’re still not ready to go, we have to tell them we are having a hearing anyway. People just want to be heard.”

In response to the same question, Mr. Bratka defended the court’s record, stressing that the operation of the court stays within the 10 percent of its caseload exceeding time limits that is considered acceptable by the Ohio Supreme Court’s standards.

“There are a lot of reasons cases can go on,” he said. “Attorneys may ask for a continuance. We may have to schedule an all-day hearing and we have to set it out on the calendar so we can have time to do that. But we are doing what we can to keep cases rolling.”

Mr. Bratka, 58, served almost eight years as magistrate in family court before being appointed recently as interim judge after C. Douglas Chamberlain announced his retirement. He is also retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserves and has worked as a Logan County Sheriff’s deputy, administrator of the Tri-County Regional Jail, private practice lawyer and mayor of West Liberty.

Ms. Hawkins, 54, who has worked the bulk of her 20-year law career in Logan County, mainly handling family court matters, has also served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, worked as a sheriff’s deputy in Milwaukee early in her career and in an administrative post at a hospital before becoming a lawyer.

A tight local budget is probably the single largest impediment to the family court living up to its full potential, Mr. Bratka indicated in a question about juvenile crime.

“We have a problem with delinquency and juvenile crime in Logan County, but the problem we have in adequately punishing them and getting them the help they need, goes down to the budget,” he said, noting that in addition to probation staff shortages, the Logan County Juvenile Detention Center, which is a joint project with Hardin County, can only house seven offenders from Logan County and five from Hardin.

“If I want to put one in, I have to let one out. I would love to have another couple probation officers and a diversion officer, but we just cannot afford to do it on the budget we have.”

Skirting the budgetary issue, Ms. Hawkins said she believes juvenile offenders should have better access to court-appointed attorneys and that new partnerships may help deter some of the delinquency and crime.

“Maybe we can find programs to work within the schools to keep children busy and out of trouble,” she said before conceding that “there is always going to be an element of kids that get in trouble.”

Throughout the question and answer session, Mr. Bratka stressed his experience on the bench and as an administrator in charge of a large staff at the Tri-County jail and in the reserves.

Ms. Hawkins responded by noting that during her time in the reserves, she was responsible for 15 people, and for a staff of 10 during her time at the hospital.

“Not everybody can be a magistrate or be appointed to the bench by the governor, but I love what I do and I love the law,” she said in her concluding remarks.

The stinger of the night, however, came when Ms. Wherry asked if candidates supported the idea of allowing employees to retire and be rehired in a process that is commonly called “double-dipping” and was partly responsible for Judge Chamberlain’s early retirement.

While Ms. Hawkins said she opposed it because it “denies new people the chance to come in and advance,” Mr. Bratka admitted the reality of the situation.

“I knew you would ask this question. Yes. I’m a double-dipper,” he said. “The advantage of double-dipping to an employer is that when they come back it is as an absolutely new employee. You don’t have to pay as much, but you maintain their expertise. It’s a win-win because you are bringing them back and saving money.”

In other areas of questioning, the two candidates agreed that although grant money could eventually dry up, having a grant writer on staff is a critical element in keeping the court afloat.

And neither would say if they have a candidate in mind to fill the magistrate position that has been vacant since Mr. Bratka’s appointment as interim judge.

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