Longtime clerk bids farewell to politicized office

Shenandoah County Circuit Court clerk Denise Barb sorts through a box of files inside her office recently. Barb, who has been circuit court clerk for 24 years and worked in the office for 33 years, is retiring at the end of December. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Longtime Circuit Court Clerk Denise Estep says she won’t miss the politics of her otherwise non-political office when she retires this month.

Estep, 55, served 24 years in the constitutional office and won re-election bids whether or not she had the support of a political party. Her chief deputy clerk, Sarona Irvin, takes over in January.

“I have no problems leaving and letting Sarona take over,” Estep said in a recent interview. “Where my problem comes in is 33 years I grew up with these people and we formed a very good bond.”

While she’ll miss the co-workers, Estep admitted that she enjoyed the job more when she first took office.

“I’ve been very blessed to have gotten this job to begin with and I’ve enjoyed working with the people and I’ll miss the people but I won’t miss all the headaches and hassles between the Board of Supervisors and the state, dealing with all that,” Estep added. “It’s time for somebody else to take it over.”

Shenandoah County Circuit Court clerk Denise Barb sorts through a box of files inside her office recently. Barb, who has been circuit court clerk for 24 years and worked in the office for 33 years, is retiring at the end of December. Rich Cooley/Daily

Estep pointed out that she’s far from retirement age and she wants to do more with her life though she does plan to take a break after stepping down.

“I don’t have any definite plans,” Estep said, noting that she and her husband have been buying antiques over the years and might try to start a business.

But Estep said her real passion is to help dogs and she would like to open a rescue operation for the animals. Estep said she and her husband love dogs and she would like to open a facility that would house dogs rescued from natural disasters when other organizations lack room.

“I don’t want to stay at home,” Estep said. “I want to be out and about.”

Estep started working in the clerk’s office full time in May 1982 when she graduated from James Madison University. Voters elected Estep to her first term in the constitutional office in 1991 and then served three, 8-year terms after that.

Estep ran as an independent for her first time after the local Republican Party chose not to support her for the office. Estep compared her situation to that of Sarona Irvin, her chief deputy clerk, who ran for the office and won Nov. 3 in spite of the fact that the Republican Party would not support her bid. Estep recalled that her predecessor, Marvin Sigler, a Republican, asked her if she would consider running when he retired. Republicans instead chose Larry Vance. In that election, Estep and Ralph Bauserman ran as independents while Mike Cook ran as the Democratic Party candidate for the office.

When Estep ran for her second term eight years later, she faced a challenge by Taralyn Manuel, now Nicholson, the Democratic Party candidate. Tamara Heishman, now the clerk of the general district court, ran against Estep eight years ago.

Estep said her position and those of the other constitutional offices are not supposed to be political. At the same time, Estep said the fact that voters elect the clerk and other officers make those officials want to please the public.

“I think the election is fine but it’s not political,” Estep said. “I mean, nobody stands at that front door when they walk in they say are you a Democrat, are you a Republican, are you an independent. They don’t care.”

Estep recalled that she ran as a Republican candidate for her second term at the request of party supporters. Political differences arose about eight years later and she again ran as an independent.

“So when that happened I thought why am I with this group and this party and they’re not doing anything to help me and I need to serve the citizens of the county, not this party, so that’s when I left again,” Estep said. “So I did make a mistake by going back.”

The circuit court’s work has increased over the years, especially its criminal caseload, Estep noted. The court recently began scanning documents into a database and that activity also increased the work for staff. The court also has dealt with a lack of space for all its documents.

“Basically anything that happens in a person’s life they have to come through this office several times through their lifetime,” Estep said.

While noting that she didn’t want to dwell on the politics of the position, Estep recalled that the Board of Supervisors decided in 2010 that constitutional offices needed to cut their budgets by $50,000 each. For Estep, that meant eliminating a position. The county did not restore the money to the agency’s budget.

The clerk and staff have hundreds of duties. While studies are used to determine how many people the office should have based on its workload, the data doesn’t take into account the time each employee must spend with the public. Technological advances for the office have helped in some ways but also increased the work responsibilities.

The Virginia General Assembly only recently increased the number of judges in the circuit. As a result, Judge Dennis Hupp presides over the Shenandoah County Circuit Court full time. Estep said Hupp deserved the state’s help. However, now that he presides over the court more often, the clerk’s office workload has increased.

Estep admitted that she “hated” bookkeeping – a task she let Irvin handle. Estep said Irvin faces a burden of having to train people to oversee the bookkeeping while she serves as the office’s overall manager.

Estep said, “We really do need help and I’m hoping that with some new blood on the Board of Supervisors that maybe they’ll be more amenable to giving us the help that we need.”

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