Editor’s note: The Press runs an occasional extended feature profiling people of interest in our communities.
Sheffield Lake/Sheffield Village/Avon Lake
by Michele Murphy
9:10 a.m. David Graves is already at his office in Sheffield Lake City Hall reviewing overnight police reports. Someone’s in jail for domestic violence. Graves knows he will have to maneuver his schedule a bit to get to court for an arraignment in this case. For the layperson, an arraignment is typically held within 24 hours of an arrest. This is where a defendant hears charges being brought against him or her, bail is set and a pretrial date is scheduled. As prosecutor for the city, Graves works closely with Sheffield Lake police Chief Tony Campo and arresting officers as he determines charges to be brought against an individual. -more-
Calls are made to determine the time the arraignment is scheduled. He then takes up other files he needs to read as he begins to describe his role, not only as the city’s prosecutor, but also its law director. The positions are part-time, allowing him to also serve as assistant law director for Avon Lake and prosecutor for Sheffield Village.
He quickly and easily moves from discussion about the Ohio Revised Code and pending criminal cases to zoning codes, the advantages of wind turbines, marijuana moratoriums, and demolition of nuisance properties.
One could conclude this would be the result of a very full, very long life.
In truth, it describes the remarkable legal career of the 45-year-old Graves who was just 32 when former Sheffield Lake Mayor John Piskura tapped him to serve. It was probably an easy ask for the mayor and easy “yes” for Graves. After all, Sheffield Lake is home.
Graves is the son of parents who were musicians. No surprise then, by the time he attended Brookside High School, he was a member of marching band and played a number of instruments. “Class of 1990,” he announces with pride.
Graves circles back to the overnight arrest as he learns the arraignment is set for 1 p.m. at Lorain Municipal Court. He shakes his head as he explains that he and police are familiar with the arrestee who has been in jail before. He may be the prosecutor, but it does not mean he is hard-hearted or impervious to hardships, even self-inflicted, of those who find themselves at odds with the justice system.
Coaxed back into telling his own story, which he seems a bit hesitant doing, he explains he went from Brookside to Bowling Green State University with a partial scholarship in music. While he continued to play in concert bands and ensembles all through college, he admits it was a time when “I was trying to figure out what to do with my life.”
He ultimately chose to major in philosophy, saying he believed it would “provide a good background for law school.” He is not boastful when he says he chose law because he “believed I’d do well at it.” Plus, he “was always interested in government and policy.” It was Sheffield Lake Mayor Dennis Bring, not Graves, who revealed that Graves put himself through law school.
Graves’ interest in government and policy continued to grow. He spent a semester between graduating from BGSU and entering Cleveland State University’s Cleveland Marshall College of Law working as a substitute teacher at Lorain Admiral King High School. He says he “met very intelligent, impressive kids and dedicated teachers.”
While in law school, he worked with the Law and Public Policy Clinic on the Ohio Works First program. He said he became engrossed by the myriad issues people face moving from welfare to work. He ticked off some of those challenges such as child care, transportation, making good matches for the jobs that were available and job training, saying he liked “grappling with real challenges.”
When presented the opportunity to work in the public sector, he went for it, saying, “It’s rewarding because you realize how the work affects people. It has a great impact.”
Shortly after 10 a.m., he heads to Avon Lake City Hall, stopping briefly in his office to sign warning letters for unpaid parking tickets issued by the Avon Lake Police Department.
He then raps on the door next to his. Ruth Booher, zoning administrator, is waiting to review items for an upcoming meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals. She tells him up to four items could be placed on the agenda. She spreads out a drawing of a revised site plan which showed structures, fences and property lines. The owner had provided the new drawing in an effort to gain approval for a fence that had previously been turned down by the board.
The next two items deal with plans submitted by a local builder. At issue were concerns about setbacks and curbs. She explains there could be a fourth item for the agenda but the homeowner has not responded to correspondence requesting more information. Graves answers her every question and Booher appears to feel confident about how to proceed. Later, Booher said of Graves, “He is absolutely a godsend. He knows all the zoning issues.” She continues, “He goes over all the questions I have. It’s great for me.”
Less than an hour later, he is off to Avon Lake Municipal Court where he picks up pretrial folders for the next morning’s docket. Court Clerk Kathleen Novotny teases him about his early arrival and when he tries to explain the hastily scheduled arraignment, she just chuckles.
He mentions to Novotny that he needs to see Judge Darrell Billancini about having media in the courtroom the next day. They again joke about predicted snow and whether it would impact any of the following day’s docket. She laughs, saying they never close due to weather.
With that, he takes the handful of 11 folders from her. Each represents a pretrial case resulting from citations and/or arrests in Sheffield Village. After stopping by the judge’s chambers to explain a reporter’s presence the next day, he heads into an office off the courtroom where he begins to review cases.
They include a number of OVIs (operating a vehicle while impaired, formerly known as DUI) and several theft incidents, as well as cases for assault and another for possession of cocaine. He explains that, in most situations, defendants will be represented by attorneys. He needs to be prepared to meet with any and all of them before they stand before the judge in the morning.
He also has another folder to review concerning a pretrial motion filed by a defense attorney in connection with a negligent vehicular homicide case scheduled for trial in May.
As he explains particulars from each case, he is interrupted as other attorneys pass by and say hello. Shortly before noon, he was heading off to a drive-thru window for lunch eaten in the car as he drove to Lorain for the arraignment.
The following morning, Graves arrived at Avon Lake Municipal Court around 7:30 a.m. to prepare for arraignments that began at 8. By 9, seats in the courtroom were half-filled. Folks also milled or sat on benches in the hall just outside the courtroom. Attorneys arrived, then headed through a closed door where Graves was already meeting with earlier arrivals. As he explains, “This is where the road to a possible grand jury indictment and felony conviction begins.” The courtroom itself was quiet despite the lawyerly work going on behind closed doors. A flurry of activity and increased police presence means the arrival of jailed probationers for their scheduled hearings. It grows quiet as Judge Billancini enters. He quickly handles two cases himself. Then Graves steps up to respond to questions from the judge about a workplace assault case. Satisfied with the replies, the judge agrees to give the defendant credit for time served. Graves then joins Sheffield Village police officer Keith Poole to review the remaining batch of cases about to be heard and the morning quickly becomes afternoon.
Through all this hubbub, Graves appears unflappable. His calm and steadiness are two of the attributes that Mayor Bring appreciates most about Graves. “He’s not the kind of guy who fumbles through the ordinance book and says, ‘I’ll get back to you.'”
“His follow-through is very good,” according to Bring. “He’s very smart. He researches everything he does. It makes it kind of nice when you can rely on somebody like that.”
Bring, who is known for his “off the cuff” style, as he describes it, says Graves “is not afraid to speak his mind. You gotta have somebody like that around.”
Bring says Graves has “made a big difference for our city.” In more recent years, Graves negotiated contracts between the city and employee unions. In addition to saving the city the expense of having to hire outside counsel, Bring says “his mature, professional style is well-received. There’s not that immediate standoff. They can sit down and talk. It’s not ‘us against them.’ It’s about being fair for everybody.”
Sheffield Village police Chief Larry Bliss, who has worked with Graves in an official capacity for just a short time, says, “I can tell you that I was instrumental in the selection process (in hiring Graves as village prosecutor late last year.) David possesses the qualities we were seeking: integrity, temperament and fairness.”
On the other hand, police Chief Campo has known Graves all the while the prosecutor grew up. He says Graves makes his job “1,000 times easier” due to his accessibility and knowledge. Campo believes Graves is as “knowledgeable about criminal law as anybody.”
He continues, “You need somebody like that (Graves) to go to to make sure you are operating within the law.” The chief says he’s lost count of the number of times Graves helped with search or arrest warrants and dispensed valuable legal advice for himself and his officers.
Beyond the busy 9 to 5 schedule he maintains, Graves also attends all Sheffield Lake Council meetings, as well as Sheffield Lake zoning and planning and Avon Lake’s zoning meetings. That meant he was booked three nights that week and two the following week.
Some might conclude Graves would have time for little else. They would be wrong because he has served on the boards of both the Lorain County Office on Aging and The LCADA Way for a number of years.
Plus, he still manages to find time for music as a member of the Cleveland Pops Orchestra Chorus. Graves is also not beyond being sweet-talked into singing for various community events, whether Sheffield Village Mayor John Hunter’s annual 5K run or the annual Veterans Day program at Black River Landing. He says music is “something I really enjoy.” That’s good because those who know and work with him are busy singing his praises.
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