Court clerk hopefuls talk change

WOODSTOCK – Candidates vying for the clerk of circuit court seat in Shenandoah County squared off at a forum Thursday.

David George, Tammy Heishman, Sarona Irvin, Lisa Long and Adam Sharp participated in the event held at Peter Muehlenberg Middle School. The Shenandoah County Chamber of Commerce, the Shenandoah Forum, the Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, the Shenandoah County Education Association and the Farm Bureau put on the last of four candidates’ forums.

More than 100 people attended the event and many submitted questions for the candidates. Beverly Butterfield moderated the event. Each candidate gave introductions and closing statements and had two minutes to respond to the questions.

Candidates responded to the following questions:

Why do you want to be the next clerk of court?

George said he’s been looking into the position for three years, researching public audits of the office. George said there are concerns with customer service. George said the office needs to improve its technology to run more efficiently.

Heishman said she has the knowledge and experience, can improve the deficiencies. She said her office disperses restitution in a timely matter.

Irvin said she’s the most qualified to perform the hundreds of duties given her 24 years experience. Irvin said the office has been understaffed. She explained the restitution isn’t paid until months or years until after a criminal has been released from jail. The restitution balance has never exceded $200,000 any year, she said. Irvin said much work is needed to determine the location of a victim owed restitution. She said the office has never been reprimanded for its audits.

Long said she wants to make positive changes, improve customer service and distribution of restitution.

Sharp said he wasn’t planning on running but saw that the candidates weren’t talking about important issues. He wants to remove the office from the political fights and move it forward. Sharp said it’s also about being a leader in the community.

What are your plans to improve customer service issues?

Heishman said she plans to have at least two deputies at the front desk. She would hold regular meetings with staff to discuss customer service.

Irvin said the office continually receives praise for its customer service but she admitted nobody’s perfect. Irvin said some customers come in with an attitude. She said she would train staff to know there would be no tolerance for bad service. Irvin said the workload keeps employees at their desks, not allowing for the office to have two workers at the front.

Long said improvement with leadership will change employees’ attitudes and customer service. Long said she would hold monthly meetings with staff to work on customer service.

Sharp said he checked with other clerks of courts in the area and noted that in one instant a clerk had to wait on a customer first before he met with him.

George said customer service starts at the top. George said he’s letting the public know about the customer service issue. George said, if elected, he would institute a customer service survey upon taken office.

What education or experience do you have that shows you understand legal procedure and familiarity with legal documents?

Irvin touted her experience working with a local attorney and her 24 years as chief deputy clerk. Irvin noted that she also has a criminal justice degree.

Long said she graduated with a degree in criminal justice and has worked in the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office for 13 years, giving her experience with legal documents.

Sharp said he doesn’t have a lot of experience with the legal system. Sharp said that other clerks told him legal experience is good for the office but not essential, given that much of the rules are written and available. Sharp said the most important part of the job is the ability to manage and a vision of how to move the office forward.

George said that no matter who is elected, there would still be decades of experience with the workers in the court. George said more important is the management element. He said he would bring fiscal accountability and professional responsibility to the office.

Heishman cited her experience in all three courts, noting she is the only court clerk running.

If elected, what would be your first order of business?

Long said she would work with deputy clerks to improve the efficiency of the office.

Sharp said he would meet with all the judges and talk to them about their expectations from the office.

George said the concerns with the financial audits drew him to run for the office. The office is supposed to implement a corrective action. George said he would bring improved fiscal management to the office.

Heishman said her first order of business would be to disperse restitution to victims. Heishman said she didn’t feel the office was in as bad a shape as George claimed.

Irvin said she plans to keep the current staff rather than clean house as a newly elected clerk might do. Irvin noted the court’s increasing caseload. Irvin said she would look to area colleges for people who might help the office.

What is your experience with the operation and maintenance of the case management system?

Sharp said he has no plans on reducing office staff. He then noted that the system is hard to use and limited. Sharp cited a recent issue about a newspaper’s request for data that was rebuffed by the courts. Sharp said he didn’t know why courts wouldn’t want to release bulk data that would show sentencing disparities.

George said he would not cut staff and, instead, leverage the office with their experience.

Heishman said it’s a great system that she’s worked with since 1997.

Irvin said she would continue advancing the technology. Irvin said she would release the bulk data to which Sharp referred. Irvin said the office workers’ hands are tied when it comes to the case management system. She started the system that now all cases are scanned in to the system, allowing employees to access documents for customers more quickly.

Long said she would not want to lose employees. She said individuals are entitled to some of, but not all the data in the system.

George is the Republican Party candidate. Sharp is running on the Democratic Party ticket. Irvin, Heishman and Long are running as independent candidates. Irvin works as the chief deputy clerk in the Shenandoah County Circuit Court. Heishman is the clerk of the county’s general district court. Long is the office manager for the commonwealth’s attorney. Longtime Clerk Denise Estep is not running for another, 8-year term.

Election Day is Nov. 3.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com