Opinion: Clerk’s race should be based on experience

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Last week Bossier Parish Clerk of Court Cindy Johnston, a nearly 40-year veteran of the Clerk’s office, announced her retirement at the end of her term in June 2016.  Johnson has served in the Clerk’s office since 1976 under former Clerks of Court Wilna Mabry and Joan Carraway before winning election to the office in 2007.

In a brief visit with Johnston, and in addition to sharing her plans to spend more time with family and traveling – she noted that eight-year Clerk’s office veteran Jill Sessions will run for the Clerk’s seat.  Sessions also has experience in the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office; Johnston appointed her Chief Deputy Clerk earlier this month.

In addition to Sessions, there are a couple of unverified reports circulating of folks not associated with the Clerk’s office interested in running for the job.

If that is the case, this seems like a good time to review the function of the Clerk of Court’s office.  Unlike other public offices, the Clerk’s office is unique in that experience in the office really must be a prerequisite.

For the record, the Clerk of Court’s office isn’t a big filing cabinet lined facility in which legal documents are filed away for safekeeping.  From overseeing elections, to selecting jury pools and instructing those pools, to maintaining mortgage and conveyance records, to issuing marriage licenses, to maintaining civil and criminal records and dockets – the responsibilities of this office are significant and its related liabilities are serious.

And as a frequent user of the clerk’s office, my personal observation is that the day the next clerk is sworn-in with be either the time for the multitude of the office’s operations to move smoothly forward without interruption – or the time to slow down so that the offices’ employees can spend a couple of years training a new Clerk in that multiplicity of duties, responsibilities, and significant potential liabilities.

The complexities and experience required to learn the Clerk’s job aren’t a short enough list to enumerate in this space, or several more like it.  Moreover, reliance on subordinates (approximately three dozen deputy clerks) to teach the myriad of responsibilities encompassed by the Clerk of Court’s position, while performing their duties, isn’t as realistic as it first may appear.  These deputies are professional, cordial, and exceedingly knowledgeable – and very busy as a rule.

The old adage that suggests changes are best made from inside a system also suggests that the “changer” be well-versed in the system.  That may account for the high prevalence of Clerk’s of Court who attain their elected positions by coming up through the ranks, rather than from outside the system.

Should a Clerk’s race in Bossier Parish actually materialize, experience as the parish’s chief custodian of the parish citizens’ legal documents ought to be, once again, a measurable factor in choosing the office-holder.  The cut-line in this race is likely to come down to the difference between a desire to serve the public through experience, and serving the public through aspiration.

Expect “experience” in administering this office and its employees to be a campaign issue as it rightly should be.

Marty Carlson is a columnist for the BPT. She may be reached at martycarlson1218@gmail.com