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Three candidates seek clerk of court post
Elections 2008

When longtime Hall County Clerk of Court Dwight Wood chose not to seek re-election this year, three others stepped in to run for an office that hasn't seen a contested race in 24 years.

Wood, who worked in the office for 33 years, the last 24 as elected clerk, opted to retire this year at age 56 following a controversy over his handling of passport acceptance fees. Wood legally took $86,000 in fees as personal compensation last year in addition to his county-funded salary of $122,000.

County commissioners have since passed a resolution asking that a portion of the fees be returned to the general fund. State and federal law permits elected clerks to keep the fees.

The controversy over the passport service, which is optional for Georgia clerks of court, is the campaign focal point for all three candidates to succeed Wood. All three are running as Republicans, which means the next clerk of court will be decided by voters in the July 15 primary.

The winner will oversee an office with nearly 50 employees and an annual budget of approximately $2.4 million. The clerk's office maintains all civil and criminal court records and real estate records, manages grand jury and traverse jury lists and calls citizens for jury duty, takes in traffic fine payments and accepts passport applications.

Here's a brief look at each candidate, in alphabetical order:

Charles Baker
Baker is a veteran of the Hall County Clerk of Court's office who retired in December as chief deputy clerk under Wood after 30 years in the office. He touts his knowledge of office operations and his experience supervising employees as his top qualifications. Baker, 54, spent the last seven years as the chief deputy clerk over the office's five divisions, often managing day-to-day operations, he said.

"All five managers looked to me for leadership in the office," Baker said. "It is without question that I am thoroughly familiar with the duties required of the clerk of court."

Baker said he made the decision to qualify "when the incumbent decided not to run for another term."
Baker said he would not have run against Wood had he qualified to seek re-election.

Baker said his experience is crucial for an office that since 2004 has lost four supervisors and an office manager to retirement and will soon lose its clerk of the past three decades.

"Right now, the clerk's office is in desperate need of experience," Baker said.

Baker said his top priority if elected would be to begin depositing any passport fees into Hall County's general fund. He said he would not discontinue the service.

"I think it should continue, because of the revenue it could bring into the Hall County general fund," Baker said. "I think it's a service we do exceptionally well."

Baker listed several other goals for the office. They include adding an express window for legal filings, expanding the traverse jury pool from 29,000 to 40,000 so that citizens are not repeatedly called to jury duty, updating the clerk's case management system with the help of the county's in-house technology office and cross-training more employees to help in the expanding traffic bureau division.

"I think I have some progressive ideas that will lead the clerk's office into the future in a positive way," Baker said.

Jennifer Gibbs
Gibbs, a certified public accountant from the private sector with no prior experience in the courts, says she would bring a business person's perspective to the office. She said she decided to run after learning of the passport fee controversy.

"That's when I said I've got to step up and try to make a difference here," Gibbs said.

Gibbs, 38, said her education, technical knowledge and experience in auditing private companies qualify her to take over the clerk's office.

"I know how to help clients make their operations stronger and more efficient, and that's the very thing I plan to bring to the clerk's office," she said.

Gibbs said she would familiarize herself with day-to-day operations much the same way she conducts an audit.

"The first thing you do is sit down with the employees of the office and discuss the job description of each one and what they're responsible for," she said. "You have to gain an understanding."

Gibbs said she's met people on the campaign trail that are "happy a business person is running for this position."

"I respect and admire people who have spent their life in public service," she said. "However, Hall County is growing, the technology has changed significantly in the last 10 years, and I think I can bring that technical knowledge to the office."

Gibbs said "restoring trust" would be her top priority if elected.

"The first way I want to do that is to put the passport fees that are collected back into the Hall County general fund," she said. "The next step is to look at spending. Revenues across the board are down. The next clerk should be responsible in realizing that when revenues are down, we need to take a look at spending and try to cut down."

"Taxpayers are somewhat cynical of the local government right now," Gibbs said. "And I am among those taxpayers. I really want to bring business experience to the office. And my main focus continues to be restoring trust."

Bob Vass
Vass, who served as Hall County's elected sheriff from 1992 to 2000, has the most name recognition in the race but no experience in the clerk's office. Vass, like his opponents, said he would remit the passport acceptance fees to the county's general fund.

Vass said unlike his opponents, when it comes to leadership in elected office, "I've got a track record."
"I think my experience in management, my 40 years experience in criminal justice gives me maybe a head and shoulders above the others that are seeking the same office," Vass said.

Vass said he was "more or less drafted" by friends to run for the office following the passport controversy. He joked that he hasn't handled retirement well.

"I'm a lot happier contributing and working than just sitting around," Vass, 74, said.

Vass said he would familiarize himself with the office operations by talking to employees.

"There's a lot, lot of information I'm going to have to get from those folks," he said. "But I'm not worried about it, because I know we've got some good folks there."

Vass said his management style would be the same as when he was sheriff: "Put well-qualified people in charge of each division, and hold them accountable. You've got to surround yourself with good people."

Like Baker, Vass said he would not have run against Wood, whom he calls a friend.

But Vass said he understands when he meets people on the campaign trail who are disillusioned with local government.

"I think people want to be proud of their local government, but unfortunately, sometimes they're disappointed," Vass said. "And I think they have a right to be disappointed."

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