Over the next four years, Charles Baker’s name will be stamped on tens of thousands of official papers.
Baker, Hall County’s first new clerk of superior and state court in 24 years, took the oath of office Tuesday before a courtroom packed with friends and family, courthouse employees and local government officials. Moments after being sworn in by Chief Superior Court Judge Andy Fuller, Baker vowed to change a practice in the office that indirectly led his predecessor to not seek re-election.
Longtime Hall County Clerk of Court Dwight Wood became embroiled in a controversy over his handling of passport application fees. Wood legally took some $86,000 in fees as supplemental compensation in 2007, a practice that drew sharp criticism from county commissioners and others. Facing political opposition for the first time since his election in 1984, Wood chose not to run again.
Baker, a Republican, defeated former Hall County Sheriff Bob Vass in the GOP primary, and won out over local accountant Jennifer Gibbs by 77 votes in a runoff election.
On Tuesday, Baker thanked his wife, Glenda, and the many people who volunteered or contributed to his campaign. He also thanked Wood, who backed Baker in the runoff and watched the ceremony Tuesday from the courtroom gallery, for ensuring a smooth transition. Baker, 54, worked in the clerk’s office for 30 years before his retirement in 2007 and spent time alongside Wood in recent weeks as he prepared to take the reigns.
"Some clerks won’t have such a smooth transition," Baker said, noting that many of the 39 new clerks of court in Georgia will take office Jan. 1 without any help from their predecessors.
Baker said effective Friday, all fees associated with passport applications will be turned over to the county general fund.
"With a new clerk, there will be some changes," Baker said.
Baker has other goals for the office, including setting up a system for people to pay traffic tickets online and modernizing computer equipment in the deed room with funds from the Georgia Superior Court Clerks’ Cooperative Authority.
The clerk of court is custodian of thousands of official records, including court filings and real estate deeds, and takes in millions in county revenues each year in fines and fees.
Before administering the oath, Fuller called the elected clerk’s position "extremely important" and said the varied duties of the office were necessary "to ensure that the integrity of the justice system is maintained."
On Friday, Baker takes over the office, which has a budget of about $2.4 million and about 50 full-time and part-time employees. County offices are closed Thursday for New Year’s Day.
"On Jan. 2, 2009, I will humbly accept the position of clerk of superior and state court, the legal custodian of records in Hall County, Ga.," Baker said.