OKEECHOBEE — In his opening statement Thursday night at the political forum, Judge Jerry Bryant explained the duties of the clerk of the circuit court and went over his qualifications for the job. “Here’s why I’m running for office,” he said. “As a lawyer and later as a judge working behind the scenes with the office, I observed many problems with the operation of our clerk’s office — lack of leadership, failure to use available technology and resistance to progress were just three of the main concerns...”
In her opening statement, Incumbent Sharon Robertson reviewed her history with the office and her qualifications for the job. Robertson has been with the clerk’s office for 36 years, 25 of those as the elected clerk and comptroller.
• The first question of the evening was, Do you believe there are any improvements that could be made to the operation of the office of the clerk of the courts that would increase efficiency and reduce theft?
Bryant said, “Whenever I was practicing law and was in other courthouses, I found that, different from ours, they were using digital technology. When they went to court, they set up case files, all they had to do was push a button. They could print out a document showing the result of the hearing. Our office, some 20 years later is still using handwritten court notes.” He went on to say there is a lot of new technology out there that he felt they should take advantage of. “I’m not talking about e-filing which was mandated by the state. I’m talking about discretionary technology that the clerk would be the one to choose.” In addition, he said he believed the staff lacked training and the office lacked leadership.
Robertson said, “There is always room for improvement when you can afford it, but for a small to midsized county, our office has advanced technology just like the bigger counties while keeping our millage rate down.” She went on to explain that they do have technology in circuit court to prepare the court sheets but in traffic and county courts, they use paper, because they only have one clerk in the courtroom. If they had technology in those courtrooms, they would have to have two clerks in the courtrooms.
• The next question was, What do you believe is your strongest qualification for this position?
Bryant said he remembered five different clerks in his lifetime, and only two of them had worked in the office before becoming clerk. Three were from outside the office. “Sometimes fresh eyes coming into a situation can look and see things that a person who has been there for many many years hasn’t seen...” He also said he had extensive accounting, financial and judicial background which he felt would help in the position. “The fact that you have experience in the office does not necessarily mean you have the best background for the office.”
Robertson said, “My strongest qualification is that I know the office from the bottom to the top. I have worked in the office for 36 years, and I have kept up with all the changes. I supervised over 50 employees at one time. I believe 36 years of leadership qualifies me to continue as your clerk.
• They were also asked, What do you believe is the public servant’s obligation of the clerk of court?
Bryant said he believed it pertained to all the functions of the court, because they are there to serve the public. “Everything should be done in a professional and courteous manner. You should do it, if possible in a manner where they only have to make one trip to the courthouse, but more important than that is the obligation to other departments, payment of vendors, information technology, cooperate with them.” He gave an example of drivers’ license reinstatement day. We have 27,000 driver’s licenses in Okeechobee and 1,400 are suspended. Legislature mandated a reinstatement day. Last year, there was a reinstatement day, but there was no advertisement, so no one knew about it. “If you don’t give the public notice, they can’t take advantage of those things.”
Robertson said her office assists customers filling out small claims packets, domestic violence injunction packets. “That’s all we do is help the public, through filing cases, taking funds, so many things. We try to keep the public educated.”
In his closing statement, Bryant said he was running because he believe there was a need for change and he believed he had ideas that he felt could make the office better. “My purpose in doing that is not to go in there and make broad changes and fire personnel like there was a rumor that went around that I was going to go in and fire everybody. What a ludicrous statement. We’ve got people in there that are performing a function. If you fire them, there’s nobody to do that function. But, I am going to go in and find the right people for the right jobs (within the house) and make sure we have good people doing the right jobs. More importantly, I want to try to make everything more efficient. I want to work with our county departments to make sure what we do is functioning is well for them as it is for us. I want to make sure the public is advised of everything that is going on that is important in their lives.” He went on to express concern about the Cares Act funds received in July. He said, “We received over $1,000,000 back in July. We have barely distributed half those monies. There are people suffering that need that money. If I were clerk of court, I would have developed a team, and I would have been in there nights and weekends and we would have been getting their applications in order making sure they got their money...”
Robertson said she believes she has the most interesting job in the county. The two areas of greatest importance are the court and the comptroller, she explained. They are clerk to the county commissioners, the bank of adjustment board. She is responsible for information technology for the board of county commissioners. They assist the property appraiser and the tax collector with technology issues. They process tax deed applications. They conduct tax deed and foreclosure sales. They issue passports and marriage licenses, perform marriage ceremonies, issue home solicitation permits, approve security badges and are recorders of deeds, mortgages and other instruments. They have been working on the Cares Act. It was not assigned to the clerk’s office, she said. They are just supposed to be the paymasters, but it has ended up completely in their hands.