Meet the candidate: Republican Steve Goodin for Hamilton County Clerk of Courts
On the Hamilton County ballot this fall is a race for County Clerk of Courts. Republican Steve Goodin is running to unseat Democrat Pavan Parikh, who has been serving since he we was appointed in January to fill the seat Aftab Pureval vacated when he became Cincinnati mayor.
Goodin sat down with WVXU Local Government Reporter Becca Costello to talk about his vision for the office. You can listen to the full conversation by clicking the purple play button above, or read a transcript below.
This interview has been slightly edited for grammar and clarity.
Talk a bit about your professional and political credentials and why you think you're the best person for this job?
Well, thanks, first, for having me on. And these are the kinds of races sometimes it's hard to get folks interested in, because these are the classic down-ticket races. But I would submit that they're very important. And, you know, we really felt we made a difference when I was on City Council. I was only there for a year, I was appointed right after Mr. Sittenfeld and Mr. Pastor were arrested. And you know, we had three members arrested, another one under indictment. So it was a really challenged and troubled institution. And that's how a lot of folks, particularly those in the legal community, see the courthouse right now. And I really feel that we can make a difference there by bringing the same sort of principles of accountability and transparency back to that institution.
And the reason I get asked this a lot, they're like, look, you're a lawyer, you got kids, why are you doing this? And my answer to that is because of what's going on nationally. I mean, I think there's a lot of uncertainty in the country, a lot of uncertainty in the world, both in the global economy, and in terms of just safety, and all these huge issues that we cannot control right now. So I think we should put a premium on our local officials now to create an environment where safety is prioritized, where transparency is prioritized, where we can believe in our institutions, so that people want to come here and raise their families here, and businesses want to spend their money here, this local environment, the regulatory environment, the criminal justice environment, the public safety environment, all are those are things that I hear about a lot in the business community — and from just average citizens, those are the things I care about. And that's something we can make a difference in. Sometimes we can't make a difference when we feel helpless on the national level. But the folks who step up at the local level definitely can. So that's what I feel sort of my calling is here.
In terms of general credentials, you know, I started my career as a journalist. And I do think that's something that is missing in the Clerk of Courts Office right now, which is an emphasis on providing access to all public records and transparent access, and actually some editorial content on the Clerk of Courts web page so that non-lawyers can find their way around and understand what the big cases of the day are. But I've also worked as an assistant prosecutor, and I also was an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and served an extended period of active duty as an Army prosecutor. So I understand the public safety piece. And that is a big part of the Clerk of Courts Office, particularly in their processing of bonds, and how they deal with and interact with the public and interact with all the courtrooms. I mean, the clerk of courts, essentially runs the courthouse, sets the tone, has the most employees — almost 400 employees there — who interact with the public and interact with the courtrooms and the prosecutors, and criminal defense attorneys every day. And I've been on both sides, I was on the public defender commission and I was a prosecutor, I understand how that works in great detail. And I've also had almost 20 years of civil litigation now under my belt as well. So I know what it's like to be a lawyer out there, doing that kind of work. So we feel very well prepared. And we've got some big ideas for the office.
That's a great transition to the next question. What are some concrete actions that you hope to take if you're elected to the job?
Well, the first thing we would do is totally revamp the website. I mean, that website is I'm told the most visited website in Hamilton County with something upwards of a million views a day. You know, and right now, it really isn't very accessible to members of the public. You have to have a special — and you should, have to have — special access to see unredacted documents. You have to be an attorney and you have to go through a process because sometimes there's personally identifiable information on those documents. But more generally, a lot of folks have questions about cases that involve them, involve their neighbors, involve their kids, cases that are big, you know, cases of the day that oftentimes journalists can't get in. One of the things we hear over and over, and I say this respectfully to you, because I know you're putting in the work, but, you know, this isn't like it was 20 years ago, where there were dedicated beat reporters walking the halls in the courthouse, multiple reporters from multiple news outlets just looking for news and looking for things to report. Those days are gone, unfortunately. And we think the Clerk of Courts Office could — particularly through its website — could step in and fill that void by providing some basic editorial content about what the big cases were in any given day. And also, it would also have the added and great benefit of bringing some transparency there. So revamping the website with editorial content and easy access to information, particularly around criminal cases is job one. Job two is taking this help center that the former clerk, Aftab [Pureval], brought in and trying to expand that. I mean, right now it does some good work for folks who are facing evictions and so forth. But what we hear over and over are these small business owners, mom-and-pop landlords, folks who really can't afford an attorney, they go to court, particularly small claims courts and municipal courts, for cases that are really important to them, and they really can't navigate the system. So we want to provide some help for those mom-and-pop small business owners who find themselves pulled into court more often than not. So we want to expand the help center so that it really does help everybody and not just those facing eviction.
Something you say on your website and in your campaign is that political ideology seems to direct administrative decisions, and the implication that you want to stay away from the political ideology. On the other hand, you are running as a Republican, you've boasted about endorsements from several prominent local Republicans. So how would you keep political ideology out of the office?
Well, first I would point to my service on City Council, where we really worked across the aisle and really worked in a very, very independent way to take politics, particularly, out of the economic development process. I mean, that to me, when I look back on the year that we spent on council, you know, we think we made real systemic and substantive reforms there that folks are just now sort of now acknowledging and starting to figure out. We want to do the same thing there. I mean, look, politics, patronage, things of that nature, in offices like the Clerk of Courts, that's been an issue for decades — Republican, Democrat, etc. So the first thing I would do is put an absolute ban on political activity in the courthouse during court hours. Certainly, I mean, that is something that's an allegation that has surfaced there under Democrats and Republicans, we would bring that to bear immediately.
Secondly, we would restore any kind of public records that had been taken down at the request of any kind of different group, we know that in one instance, thousands of eviction records were taken down at the request of Legal Aid. You know, there are perhaps policy reasons to consider that. But anything that messes with the transparency and the availability of public records in any way, shape, or form, I think, damages the public discourse and dialogue around those issues. And I think it skews things, and I think job one is just to provide nonpartisan access to as many records as you can.
And number three, I think we absolutely need to look at what's happening with the bond process and the bail process. That is a huge issue, particularly when I travel to the African American community. It's a big, big issue about folks who are being released on lower bonds, how that information can come available to the public, whether or not outside groups should be allowed to post bonds. Those are issues where clearly some politics are coming into play, currently. And I think we need to all just step back from that and look at that from a common sense public safety perspective and bring everybody to the table and try to figure that out in a way other than this sort of gamesmanship that I that that we we see at the moment.
But on the bonds issue, how involved is the clerk even in that process? I know one of your goals is to publish a public notice when someone is released on bond. But as far as how much the bond is set for and those decisions, those all rest with the judges, right?
They do in certain instances. But I mean, the clerk of courts has a real role to play there. I mean, particularly one of the big issues that emerged is there's a national nonprofit group, it's backed by a hedge fund called The Bail Project, that it now has an office in Cincinnati and posts bails and bonds for individuals even after they're set. And, you know, if they don't go into court, but they just go around posting bonds — and in a lot of communities that has not worked out well — some of these folks who have gotten out on these bonds skipped out on the bonds or committed other violent offenses. There's a huge controversy about the Bail Project right now in Indianapolis, they're basically being run out of town.
(Reporter's note: Goodin refers to an Indiana state law that went into effect July 1 regulating charitable bond organizations. According to an investigate report from the Indianapolis Star, the legislation was largely driven by misleading media reports and politically motivated finger-pointing: "Some reports blamed The Bail Project for bailing out people later accused of murder when, in fact, the person had last been freed by a commercial bond agent or a friend.")
That's a place where the clerk of courts can stand up and refuse to accept these kinds of out-of-town bonds as not being true sureties, and start policing these sorts of things. So the clerk of courts has a lot of leeway and discretion on what bonds it will accept and what sureties it will accept. But also to your point about the judges, you're absolutely right, the judges do set the bonds. And there has been a huge sea change with the new wave of judges we've seen in the last two election cycles as to what is considered an appropriate bond. And there's also the separate issue coming from the Ohio Supreme Court which literally struck the words "public safety" from the considerations a judge can undertake. And that's something that voters are going to have a chance to correct this fall with Issue 1, which I support.
But I do think calling attention to those decisions and providing access and transparency around those decisions — which are very hard to find on the on the website right now — that would be job one as well. So yes, the clerk has real discretion. And around what bonds to take and what to accept as a surety. And I think that should be a much tougher question, particularly when out-of-town and nonprofit and hedge fund folks who are getting into the bond business, I think that's something that we really need to take a strong look at, and likely reject here in Hamilton County. I think it is really outside of our values, regardless of party. But I also think that this bond information needs to be out there and people need to know. And that's really, it is impossible to find for the average citizen on the website as it currently is situated.
Going back briefly to this idea of adding editorial content to the clerk's website, explain a little bit more like what that would look like. If a goal is to keep political ideology out of the clerk's office, and yet [you're] adding commentary on court cases, how do those jive together?
That's a good question. And thanks for letting me clarify this. I'm speaking as editorial as an old journalist, when I mean editorial not like writing editorials or commentary or things of that nature. But I mean editorial in terms of actually putting in written content and summaries. So no, I don't think the Clerk of Courts Office should be out there, you know, opining kind of like, you know, Dusty Rhodes [Hamilton County Auditor] does on his Twitter account, and things of that nature. That's not what I'm suggesting at all. What I'm suggesting is just an old fashioned police blotter type, just the facts, daily updated, recitation of the big cases. And access directly to the bonds and access directly to — you know, it's still a work in progress, but we're envisioning something along the lines of a courthouse kind of news wire that will be updated throughout the day with filings of a public interest. Now, I guess, there will be some editorial decisions involved, because there are thousands of cases filed every day, and we couldn't post every last one on that page. So there would be some decision-making that would have to go into that. But in terms of the average citizen, I think that's something that they would really appreciate. But no, we would not be opining, that is certainly not the clerk's role, the clerk's role does have to be one of of neutrality, and it's essentially a nonpartisan job. But I think putting that information out there in common English, and with decent summaries and links to the documents would be very, very well appreciated.
I just know a couple of weeks ago, there was a large — the current clerk is trying to get into this a little bit, you know — there was an abortion decision handed down in the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court that a lot of people wanted to see and find and they couldn't find it. So they had to put a special widget onto the clerk's webpage for that so that the average non-lawyer could click on it and read the decision, read those documents, we would just make that part of our day-to-day duties. As soon as something is filed, scanned and uploaded, we would have somebody reviewing that to see if it's something that will be of general public interest and present a summary — an impartial summary — and put that out there. I think, again, filling that role that used to be done by court reporters. And I mean, you know, the Enquirer and other newspapers used to have an old fashioned blotter that listed everyone that got arrested the night before, back when I was starting out as a journalist, as an intern in college, that was one of my jobs was to go around to see who got arrested. We would write that up. And we've come away from that. And there's reasons we don't do that anymore. But I think having a version of that about who actually was indicted and what big lawsuits were filed is something that will be very, very well received throughout the community.
Wrapping up the discussion here, what are some last thoughts you have for the voters of Hamilton County as they consider who to vote for?
Well, I would hope that they would take a look at our records. You know, what we did at City Hall was — when I say we [I mean] me and my team — was we approached it in a thoughtful manner, largely in a nonpartisan manner. And we took what was a troubled institution, and I think within the space of 13 months, we put it back on a very, very different course. And we see this from the current administration. That is, they are there really very much coloring within the lines that we drew, particularly in terms of ethics reform and economic development reform. And in support for law enforcement, which we were under great pressure at the time to cut the police budget, which we felt was absolutely the wrong thing to do for our neighborhoods — particularly our neighborhoods of color need that help right now. They really do. We have had a massive uptick in violent crime, and we really feel like we at least gave the police a direction and the tools to move forward there.
I want to correct real quick that in Cincinnati, at least, there has been a recent uptick in — over the past year or so — in shootings, but violent crime as a whole is at a 10 year low in Cincinnati. So just to clarify that.
Well, I don't know that that's the true correction to the folks, Becca, who are suffering these — my understanding is that shootings are at an all-time high. Murders are perhaps lower, but gun violence overall is as bad as it's ever been.
(Reporter's note: Reported shootings in Cincinnati so far this year are trending even with last year and are 18% lower than this time in 2020, which was a record high year for both homicides and shootings. So far this year, homicides in Cincinnati are down 11% compared to the year-to-date average for the past three years. Source: Cincy Insights as of October 27, 2022 and Cincinnati Police Department as of October 15, 2022.)
But you said violent crime is higher, and that's not accurate.
Well look, if you want to parse that you can parse that. But what I'm saying is shootings — people are getting shot at record levels, and they're being shot by young folks. And it's very, very tough. And I've heard that argument before, it's like, well, if you if you slice and dice the numbers a certain way, you know, the robberies are down, but shootings are up.
(Reporter's note: Violent crime in Cincinnati so far this year is down 5% compared to the year-to-date average for the past three years. Homicides are down 11%, robberies down 4%, aggravated assaults are down 4%, and rapes are up 12%. Source: Cincinnati Police Department as of October 15, 2022.)
There are folks who are afraid to go outside of their houses in certain neighborhoods in the city. And that's terrible. And it's not what we need and bad for everybody. And the shootings are a problem. And the fear is a problem. In reading about the shootings and the news causes, it causes a level of fear and toughness there. So I hear what you're saying, maybe there's some sort of a quantitative argument about violent crime overall, but qualitatively, it hasn't been this bad since I was in the prosecutor's office in the early 2000s in terms of actual shootings. There are too many guns in the city. And I think that's something that we tried to address in our way when we were on City Council. And that's the sort of attitude that we want to bring in. We want to be no nonsense, nonpartisan, but pretty tough-minded as we go forward, because we want to make sure that everyone gets the information that they need.