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Carbon: Clerk’s office ‘a mess’

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Published July 06. 2018 12:22PM

A mess.

Frustrating.

A hostile environment.

A nightmare.

These are just a few of the terms used by Carbon County Commissioners on Thursday to describe the current state of the county clerk of courts office in the courthouse.

“Over the years it has gradually been getting worse in that office,” Commissioners’ Chairman Wayne Nothstein said.

He said unfilled positions have been a major factor in the extreme backlog in the clerk of courts and bureau of collections, two offices that are controlled by the clerk of courts.

“We don’t really have a good sense of just how bad it is,” Nothstein said, adding that the county is estimating that over $1 million in court-related fees are sitting in paperwork that has yet to be filed.

“You cannot believe the frustration we have right now with the system in general and what’s going on in that office.”

That’s why the board voted to approve a request by the acting clerk of courts, Julie D. Harris, to enter into an agreement with Lehigh County to use two staff members, Jill Herschman and Jordan Kocher, to help the office catch up with the backlog. Herschman and Kocher will be paid $15 per hour and will be under contract with Carbon from Monday through Dec. 31.

Problems mount

The commissioners discussed a number of issues in the clerk of courts office that have contributed to the extreme backlog of cases.

They include numerous positions being left vacant for over a year.

“They complain they don’t have the help but if you don’t hire and don’t take the time to interview, well it’s going to get worse, and that’s what is occurring,” Nothstein said.

The county code says the clerk of courts, as an elected position, is responsible for hiring in that office and the bureau of collections. That means the commissioners can do nothing to fill the vacancies.

“When there were openings in that office that we wanted to see filled, it was not something that the board of commissioners could do,” Commissioner William O’Gurek said. “It was something only the office holder can do.

“Those vacancies were left unfilled for a total of 1,567 days,” he said. At the time of the then clerk of courts William McGinley’s retirement on May 1, the first deputy’s position had been left open for 339 days, O’Gurek said. It is still vacant.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that when you leave positions open for excess of a year how work can get backed up,” O’Gurek said. “In the last five years, those days of unfilled positions equate to like 4.29 years in county work that wasn’t done. That’s a problem. So now we’re left with a nightmare, so to speak.”

Currently, there are five positions between the clerk of courts office and bureau of collections that remain open.

Another issue is the work environment in that office, Commissioner Thomas J. Gerhard said, which is contributing to people leaving.

“It is a hostile environment,” he said.

“I think one telling statistic is that since 2013, 20 people have left that office,” O’Gurek added.

But, when asked if there are any ramifications for the mess in the clerk of courts office, solicitor Dan Miscavige said, “Our hands are tied pretty much by the county code.”

Another problem is that the state has yet to approve the Democratic Party’s nomination to fill the vacancy created by McGinley’s retirement.

The nomination of Francine Heaney of Nesquehoning remains in the queue waiting to be approved by the governor’s office and state Senate.

Until that action occurs, Harris, who was the second deputy under McGinley, will remain the acting clerk of courts.

Trickle-down effect

The problems in the clerk of courts office doesn’t end there, the commissioners said.

The backlog is affecting the prison and other court offices such as the sheriff, probation and prothonotary’s offices.

For example, when a person is sentenced by the judge to a state prison term, the clerk of courts must file the paperwork before that inmate can be transferred.

As of Thursday, Sheriff Anthony Harvilla said 22 inmates are waiting to be transferred to a state facility.

“That contributes to our prison population overcrowding,” Nothstein said. “There are a lot of issues going on that we have absolutely no jurisdiction or control over. The judges don’t have control over it. It’s extremely frustrating.”

O’Gurek said as a result of the backlog, hundreds of warrants have yet to be issued, meaning many people are walking the streets who have violated the law and have not been picked up yet.

“It’s just not good,” he said.

“The prison and sheriff’s office will be greatly affected when they start picking up all these people,” Nothstein added. “Where do we go with them?”

Fielding complaints

Many in the community who have gone through the court system are also affected.

“We have been busy every day answering inquiries from the outside about the problems that exist there regarding driver’s licenses, state sentences, a whole bunch of things that has really impacted this county in an adverse way,” O’Gurek said. “I wish it was better but it is nowhere near better. It’s a terrible condition that that office has been left in.”

O’Gurek outlined particular cases involving suspended driver’s licenses as an example.

“There are people who have relinquished their driver’s license and we have been fielding the calls and we are sitting here pretty much helpless because we can’t do anything to help these people.”

When a person is sentenced to a license suspension, they must give their license to probation, who then gives it to the clerk of courts office to file with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The person’s suspension does not begin until PennDOT receives that necessary paperwork, but the paperwork was not getting sent.

“I received a call this week from a mother of a man who was without his license for like seven months,” O’Gurek said. “He wanted to get his license back so he could drive to and from work, and he was told that the paperwork just went into PennDOT just recently and that his suspension just began so he’s starting all over. And that’s not fair.

“People are being cheated because of this,” he added. “I know people plead to violating the law and take what’s coming to them and when part of their situation is paying their debt to society … when they do that and still can’t get a level of fairness, then how can you trust the system?”

The commissioners said another woman called and told them she completed all requirements of her sentence, including serving six months in prison, and paid her fines, but was told she couldn’t get her license back because it had not been filed yet.

“How fair is that? She did everything she had to do and couldn’t get her license back because it sat in a file on the second floor (clerk of courts office) of the courthouse.”

The commissioners said that they are working with court administrator Greg Armstrong, who was able to obtain a working agreement to have Kimmy Mulik from the county juvenile probation office file the forms needed so license suspensions can begin.

To date, the board said she has gotten in as many as she could.

“She has done as good a job as she could in getting that cleared up,” O’Gurek said.

The Times News was not able to reach McGinley as of presstime.

Comments
I'm sure all these vacant positions are in the budget. Where is that money being allocated? I'm sure it is not just "sitting there." Why was this allowed to get out of control? Isn't there any accountability?

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