As the courthouse prepares for a new case management system, four people have thrown their hats in the ring to be the leader of the judicial system’s business hub.
Incumbent Hall County Clerk of Court Charles Baker faces three challengers — Bradford Rounds, Jennifer Gibbs and Laura Stiner — for the position he has held since 2008.
Baker, who at one point considered not running for reelection, said he had a change of heart.
“I feel like I’ve got more to offer for the clerk’s office,” he said.
Baker has worked in the clerk’s office since 1977 and has touted his experience as what separates him from the other candidates.
Rounds and Gibbs both stressed in interviews with The Times the need for a strong leader in the clerk of courts.
Rounds, a Clermont resident who retired last year after roughly 32 years with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, said he saw how important the clerk’s office is to the functioning of the judicial system.
Rounds has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Reinhardt University and graduated from the FBI National Academy in Quantico.
“That’s what I’ve done personally half of my entire career is command leadership, management, and you’ve got to have structure within the Sheriff’s Office,” he said.
Gibbs, a certified public accountant with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of North Georgia, said the office is “in dire need for modernization and also positive leadership change.”
“You want everything to run smoothly so that our court system can run smoothly,” said Gibbs, emphasizing that documents must be properly managed and fines collected correctly.
Baker pushed back on statements levied by other candidates regarding his leadership.
“People that I’ve talked to said it’s a well-run office and you’re doing a good job. That’s all I hear in the community and stuff. I don’t hear anything about being a weak leader,” Baker said, adding that he believes he stands up for his employees.
Regarding complaints of running behind or any sort of backlog, Baker said he has had to pull employees for Board of Equalization hearings, a duty that came under the clerk’s purview in 2011. The board hears appeals on property values.
“That’s some of the time we get behind because I don’t have a full division to do the Board of Equalization,” Baker said.
Baker said the office is running “as good or better than a good portion of the clerks in the state.”
Stiner, who worked in the clerk’s office for two and a half years, said she views the job as a customer service position and that she possesses the leadership and business acumen needed.
“When I come up with solutions for any given customer, I apply sound judgment, a firm knowledge of whatever process and a kind approach. I’ve turned a few upset customers into my friends,” she said.
While still keeping in touch with those in the office, Stiner now works for the law office of Michelle Hall and worked as a residential home builder.
The court is set to move to a different case management system known as eCourt. Since the late 1980s, Hall County has used the Comprehensive Justice Information System. The Hall County Sheriff’s Office in recent years cut ties with CJIS in favor of Superion’s ONESolution Records Management System.
“With CJIS being a home-grown system, it didn’t have the integrations that new software has now that communicates with other software,” said Lynn Ansley, Hall County’s deputy court administrator.
Ansley said data migration from the old system to the new system is underway, with a rollout target date of Aug. 1. That target date has not changed despite the COVID-19 outbreak.
The candidates focused on ways the clerk of courts’ office might move to the electronic space.
Baker said the eCourt system will lessen some of the workload for employees.
He also said there has been work to move platbooks and plat slides to a digital format.
“If I can get the rest of that into a digital format, then I can have everything on the clerks’ authority website, so you could do a search back to 1987 and not even have to come to the clerk’s office,” Baker said.
Gibbs said she is coming from a paperless background for roughly 20 years and has the technical skills in her work as a CPA, which she said is critical for the document management role of the clerk. She said she wants to ensure anything that can be online is digitized.
Stiner pointed out that printed copies inside the courthouse cost 50 cents per page while copied documents sent electronically cost $1 per page.
“I would like to see the state of Georgia reduce that so that more people would then request things electronically, keeping foot traffic lower in the office,” Stiner said.
Making these charges equivalent might help save resources and be more efficient, she said..
Stiner also said handwritten interdepartmental records need to be made electronic and she envisions a system where courthouse personnel — attorneys, legal assistants, paralegals, etc. — receive some sort of priority.
Experience: 42 years in clerk position, elected Clerk of Courts in 2008
Experience: Certified public accountant with a bachelor’s degree in business administration
Experience: 32 years with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, retired as commander of patrol division
Experience: Business owner, deputy clerk for Hall County Clerk’s Office from 2012 to 2015
Though she does not have experience in the judicial field, Gibbs said she considers herself a “lifelong learner” who wants to be cross trained in the work the clerks’ office performs.
“I will take training courses that will fill in some of the gaps, but I know how to run an office and lead people,” she said.
As the state legislature makes changes, Baker said he has been good at the interpretation of law as it pertains to his job.
“The experience I have, including the 11 years as the clerk of court, makes me the most qualified of all the candidates,” he said.
Stiner called her experience in the office invaluable.
“To effectively assist and manage your employees, you have to know your work,” she said.
Rounds referenced managing an $8 million budget while working in the Sheriff’s Office and experience operating with the financial side of Hall County.
“You’ve got to have that knowledge of how the financial system works with Hall County, how you can best use that tax dollar money to get exactly what you need or at least the closest thing you can to make that office run correctly,” he said.
All of the candidates addressed the issue of personnel within the clerk of courts’ office, whether it was morale, training or pay.
“I don’t think that the sheriff would have chosen me to run the most dangerous, the most high-liability division in the entire Sheriff’s Office unless he saw what I had as far as leadership and management experience and the ability to run a division like that,” Rounds said.
Rounds said he considers teamwork to be a No. 1 priority, with a leader holding employees accountable.
The clerk’s office needs a leader who backs up employees, Gibbs said. People who use their services, Gibbs said, are looking for better procedures, customer service and information online.
Baker pushed back on statements about low morale.
“I am the only one that would know that because I work with them five days a week … I don’t know how anybody else could say that as their own knowledge,” Baker said.
Baker did, however, say that good employees get hired in the clerk’s office only to be recruited by other offices who offer higher pay. That then leads to having to start the training over again with new employees, but Baker said there is a “real good working atmosphere.”
Stiner said she would like to see the pay be more equal across the board.
“I don’t mean this to sound like it’s going to cost the county money. I would like the resources to be reallocated, and I think it would save money in the long run for the county to have people stay,” Stiner said.
When asked how to pay for the increase, Stiner said in mid-April she had not seen the allocation of funds for each office. She said potential revenue generators — such as bringing back the passport service — could help, along with streamlining service.
The clerk’s office stopped performing the passport service in 2014. Baker was quoted in an article in The Times as saying it was time to end the service due to the other duties taken on by the office.
Stiner said she wanted to get employees on a “team-based attitude” through periodic meetings and cross training.
In 2017, Rounds and other employees filed a $75 million class action lawsuit regarding pension benefits. The case concerned roughly 100 former and current county employees. A judge granted summary judgment in favor of the county in November, and an appeal has been filed.
Rounds said he does not believe this represents a conflict of interest and exemplifies his commitment to employees of the county.
“I don’t think it would have (any) bearing on my position in the clerk’s office, because that’s totally separate. If I get elected in the clerk’s position, when I’m at work, it’s all about the clerk’s office and that judicial system. Anything that has to do with that pension lawsuit … those are the things that I deal with when I’m not acting in the authority of the clerk,” Rounds said.
Gibbs said she has had the leadership experience to create a team-oriented and collaborative atmosphere.
As to what she would change specifically as far as the clerk’s duties, Gibbs said she would want to get into the position, analyze what is working and get feedback from the people doing the duties.
“I don’t want to jump in and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to change this or change that,’ because I don’t think that’s the right approach to take,” Gibbs said.