Very few people actually know what the Clerk of Court does. What information should voters know about this office in order to cast an informed vote?
That is a question that I have gotten a lot. I will be talking to folks that typically don’t have any interactions with the courthouse. The first thing is that they’re surprised that it’s an elected position, then they’re surprised that it is a partisan position, and then they are very surprised that anyone would want to run so that they can sit next to the judge while the judge is holding court. I agree that most people consider the Clerk of Court is what they see on TV.
A lot of times what they see on TV is what they refer to as a courtroom clerk. They always get the picture of that clerk when a trial is going on, when there’s a big trial going on, they’ll associate the Clerk with that. Clerk of Court is a lot of things. One of the things that the public is not aware of is that the Clerk is actually a judge. So the Clerk has a lot of similarities to being a judge. A lot of what I do on a daily basis is that I hear cases.
I’ve had the ability to go to clerk conferences throughout the state. So if you go to some of the other counties, there will be some clerks that have been in office for 30 or 25 years or something like that. They will typically say that it is an office for “widows and orphans” because a lot of what we do is we have original jurisdiction over probates matters. Hence the term widows. Typically the man dies first so it’ll be the lady from the community coming in and probating her husband’s estate and that goes before the Clerk, so initially everything that is involved with the state goes before Clerk of Court. That is very important because if you live in a county long enough either you or your family members will come in contact with the court system.
People outside of the usual clients — attorneys, folks that have run into a traffic ticket or registration, family law issues … we deal with a lot of family laws cases — those are some of our typical clients. Our other clients are of course the District Attorney’s office, the judges’ office, Department of Human Services. I say that because they get into the term orphans. That just means we have original jurisdiction over guardianship so when a parent has a special needs child and they’re turning 18, they will then have to come through the office. Once that special needs child becomes 18, then they become of legal age so that’s not a good thing if the child does not the capacity to deal with the world as someone who doesn’t have special needs would be able to deal with. So we deal with special needs, we also deal with the aging population.
Say for example, my dad, he had dementia and so we had to go through a proceeding where we were before the Clerk of Court and get that addressed. So, I think that part is what the population doesn’t understand. The other part is, and this one of the Clerk’s key roles, is that we are the keeper of the record. We have to make sure that the records are accurately maintained and where they’re supposed to be. In the County of Wake, that ends up being some 320,000 cases a year. It is a monumental task. It’s a task that we’ve been delegated without, what I consider to be, current technology, resources to deal with that volume. It’s very important because if you’re to have a location where the community solves their issues then that location has to function at peak efficiency in order to handle those issues. If it doesn’t, there becomes backlog and there becomes a reason for the public not to have a trust that their issues will be resolved in a timely fashion.
Tell us about your experiences and why that would help you as Clerk of Court.
My unique combination of experiences sets me apart from any other candidate. First of all, I’m the only candidate running for this office that has worked in this office. I’ve worked here for over seven years, coming up in October. In those seven years, I’ve worked side by side with the deputy clerks in every capacity except for courtroom clerk that I mentioned initially… and a cashier. So among those two jobs… I’ve sat during a ceremony as a courtroom clerk but I’ve never sat in a courtroom that’s holding court. Other than that, I’ve helped key, moved furniture, moved files, worked weekends, and late nights. I’ve done everything. So I think that gives me one advantage. And that advantage is that if you’re going to hire someone to do a job for your family or the community I think it’s very important that some has done that job before. I think it’s important that they’ve actually done it well.
As a matter of fact when my current boss was on maternity leave, I was the one in charge of the office. So there may be some people saying that he’s worked there for six years but he hasn’t actually done the job. Well, that’s not true. I do think that was very important. Besides that, I do think that this job is more than doing the job. The reason I think that is that in a County of Wake, with such a large and diverse population, it needs someone with other experiences. I’ve been an attorney in Wake County for 19 years. That gives me some educational background over the procedures. That’s very important, especially in this county. The reason it’s so important in this county in regards to other counties is because in other counties they may have clerks that are not attorneys, but they don’t handle the cases that we do. Those clerks, and I know this because I’ve been to conference with those clerks, and often times those clerks will call me if they can’t get through to AOC, which is their legal advisors. That’s a good thing. They will pass off cases that they can to Superior Court.
For example, if they get a contested matter between two attorneys, often times they’ll just pass it up to Superior Court. They can do that because the volume in those counties typically can handle that. In Wake County, our judges are full. Our district court judges are at full capacity; our Superior Court judges are at full capacity. What that allows us to do is to really focus and concentrate on handling the cases that Clerks are supposed to handle. So, if you’re not an attorney, it’s going to be tough when you get before two attorneys.
When I first got here, there were some attorneys that were pushing the limits of their case so much that it would have caused some clerks some opinions that are not accurate. So I caught over $500,000 in wrongful disbursements that attorneys were trying to advocate for their clients that they were not entitled to. If you don’t have someone with the legal training and background that could have gone missing. And if that goes missing and someone brings it up, the Clerk has a bond that if we disperse any monies incorrectly than the taxpayer ends up paying for it. That’s the reason why I think it’s very important that Clerk of Court in Wake County be an attorney.
But my point is that I’ve done more than be an attorney and I think that helps me relate to our largest client base and our largest client base is the community. I’ve been a construction worker, I’ve worked in a textile mill, I had my own mulch business. I’ve done a lot of manual labor. I had a sales job. It’s not as if I’m not in touch with people who are in business. It’s not that I’m out of touch with the worker who has waited on tables or trying to manage two or three jobs because I’ve had those type of jobs. I think that’s very important.
I worked 10 years in between the time I graduated from college before I went to law school. I think that gives me the ability to relate to a large range of our customer base. So, by the fact that no one that’s running has worked in this job, and by the fact that even if they’ve worked in the court system, they haven’t had the broad range of management skills. And the management ends up being what I feel is the most important part. You can’t take on this job and not have any management skills.
We have 158 employees so that is 158 employees that you have to manage. That has to be done every single day in a way that makes this office the most efficient office that it can be. I think those are the things that set me apart.
The current Clerk of Court is not seeking re-election. What changes or improvements would you work for if you are elected as the next Clerk?
Being second in charge allows you to do the work behind the scenes. It allows you to have input. It allows you to have input in some of the decisions that are being made. I’ve been thankful about that, for the opportunity to serve the public and the example of what this office should be. Even though this is a partisan race, it’s been instilled in me to run this office as non-partisan. The reason that I think that is so important is because, as I said, we do a lot of judicial functions, so we are the decider of peoples’ issues and I think it’s very important that we run this office that way.
There are some things that I would continue. A lot of the things that I bring to the table, the fact that I’ve been at this position, have been second in charge, or have actually run this position while my current boss has been on maternity leave, is that allows me to focus on advocating for what is going to be needed for an ever-changing and ever-growing population. If you take a look at the workload study and what they’ve decided is that we are working at a capacity that exceeds our personnel. We’re doing more than we’re supposed to, with less. As our population grows, and I don’t know if you’ve been to the outlying section of the county but they are putting up houses about as fast as they did prior to the economic turndown. This county is building out fast. With the current budget the way it is, it is very rare we’re able to hire and for almost the entire time I’ve been here there have no pay raises. So that’s the challenge.
The challenge is that what I would do differently since I know the procedures, my current boss has mentioned that it took her a year and half to learn the people and the procedures, I don’t feel as though I’ll have that type of learning curve. That will allow me to advocate on day one for ways to bridge this technology gap. We have two computer terminals out there and those will start with a blinking dot and that blinking dot is a DOS terminal. So we have DOS systems. I understand the reason why we have those DOS system but then we’ll have stand-alone systems that are Windows based but the issues is having several stand-alone systems that are not able to connect.
The way that it’s been done and the theory has been that if we’re going to make change for one courtroom then we’ve got to make it for all one hundred counties. So if they make one change to one thing it’s got to be available for all counties. I do see the value in that but I think at some point with the volume being so different that there might be another model and that model has got to give us some technology to handle the volume. That’s the one thing that I’m going to advocate for is some help in the technology changes.
I will definitely use my experience to make sure that this office is running for the community but while I’m doing that I can go and advocate to the legislature. I think that’s what sets me apart because the other candidates will have to learn the system first before they can advocate for any changes.
The Clerk’s office is responsible for managing some tasks that can be highly emotionally charged for some citizens, such as the foreclosure of property, or the division of an estate after a relative’s death. What can you do to help citizens in such a crisis with facing the paper work and filings required by the Clerk’s office?
Since I’ve gotten here, and this comes from my background of the work that I’ve done before I was an attorney, it’s the ability to empathize and it’s the ability to make sure you put yourself in the shoes of the person that’s across the table from you. How you do that is to make sure that each 150 employees are keenly aware of the fact that just because they come here every day is kind of same reaction that you told me got when you got here: it’s a big building, you get lost, and it’s kind of a scary place. If you come here long enough then you know that this is not a scary building, it’s the place that you work. It’s just like any other building that you’re comfortable going to in your routine. What I have to concentrate on and this is what I did when I was a manager here—I was also a manager so I’ve managed the people as well—I have to make sure that there are constant reminders and just because we do this every day does not mean that the person sitting across from you has done this ever in their life before. Just because we do this every day, there’s no reason to say, “of course, this is how it’s done.”
That would be the same if they said, and you’ve got a Dunkin’ Donuts cup, “Blair, well why don’t you make a Vanilla Chai Tea?” I would go, “What are you talking about?” They would say, “Well this is something that I’ve done every day, I can’t believe that you don’t know how to do that.” Even though I’ve been trained and I’ve had a lot of jobs, I haven’t worked at a coffee place, so our employees have to understand that concept. I think that I can break it down in the same way that I’ve broken down that example to the employees because I’ve done a lot of different things. The things that I’ve done, I know well, and the things that I haven’t done, like making coffee, I can use that as an example and say, listen, this is how someone feels.
I’m keenly aware of how people are so emotionally charged when they get here. A lot of times being second in command means that I handle the individuals that no one can handle. But by saying that, I’m not saying that I handle everybody well because I do know that I have strengths and weaknesses. I am aware of the fact that if there is someone that I’m not connecting to there may be someone else that I am able to draw in that has a different skill set than I do.
Most of our employees are female. There will be some individuals that think that they can take advantage of that to get what they want and if they just keep speaking louder and louder they’ll be able to get what they want. There a lot of issues called in on that. I have said this: That if I’m elected, I’ll be thankful that I will have someone in place that handles those functions that I do because that’s a tough task being able to really try to deal with all the folks that most of our employees can’t. We have done a fairly good job of letting our employees know that this is a highly emotionally charged place.
I always mention that in an interview that yes, you have applied for this job, a state job, and that you have to have some tough skin to work here: you will be cussed at. I’ve been spit at and cussed at. People are so frustrated. They’re not frustrated that we’re not doing our job, but they’re frustrated at the circumstances that they find themselves in. I also try to get people that have some customer service skills because if you’ve ever worked at a coffee place or a restaurant you’ve dealt with an individual that thinks that it should be a certain way. That has to be conveyed and once, I think, that we’re able to sit down and convey that.
One of the biggest joys that I get from this job, and it’s been an emotionally charged hearing, and at the end they say, you ruled against us but I appreciate the way that you did rule. That’s the way I get my greatest satisfaction. When you make a decision and some of the decisions we do make are very tough. Quite frankly sometimes no one is happy when we’re making that decision over family matters. Then, they come up to you afterward and say that they may not like your decisions but they think that the way that you did it “made me think it through and that I appreciate the time and the effort and the way that you did it.” Just like anything else; any other place that you go to. It’s sitting down, it’s the tone that you use, it’s being able to say, “OK, I understand why you are feeling this way, that It doesn’t matter, let me just tell you the processes.”
The key to that is, and this is what I’ve learned being here as long as I have, that we cannot let our routine, all the things that we have to do, and we’re under time pressures of pushing through that volume of cases, the key is that every day that come in I have to spray myself with Teflon. That way I can make sure that nothing that anyone says just kind of washes over me and cannot stick so that way I can say, “you know I’ve been there. I’ve done a lot of things in my life. It’s going to be OK.” And the reason I can tell you its going to be OK is because you have the procedural options. I’m not going to tell you that you’re going to get the result you’re asking me to get ’cause I can’t do that, but I can say these are the options. I think that once our staff is reminded of that on a quarterly basis, on a monthly basis then that shows through to the public. That is one of the key things about this job. That is why I’m well suited to the jobs because I know the individuals and I know the kind of days that they have and I can try and say, “OK, well just stop and step back and relax. Think about the customer. Then we can do the job that the community expects us to do.”