The Clerk of Superior Court race usually doesn't get a lot of attention, but this year's election pits a former Chapel Hill mayor against incumbent Clerk James Stanford.
Stanford, 61, has managed the clerk's office for 17 years. Before that, he practiced law for 11 years with the Northen Blue Law Firm in Chapel Hill. Former Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, 47, is the first candidate to challenge Stanford for the office.
Kleinschmidt has practiced law with Tin Fulton Walker & Owen in Chapel Hill and in private practice since losing his 2015 mayoral race.
The Clerk of Superior Court serves a four-year term in numerous judicial roles, including hearing the probate of wills and administering estates; adoptions; incompetency proceedings; condemnation of private lands for public use; and foreclosures. The clerk also is responsible for keeping records of the district and superior courts, and handling court fees and fines.
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Only voters who are registered Democrat and unaffiliated can vote in the Clerk of Superior Court primary — and the winner will not face any opposition in the November election — because there are no Republican candidates running.
Here's how the candidates responded to our questions:
Q. Why should voters choose you for the next Clerk of Superior Court?
Mark Kleinschmidt: I didn’t just decide to run for this office on a whim. I was sought out and recruited by attorneys, other local officials, and community residents to take on this challenge. My professional life has been focused on justice issues, both as an attorney, policy advocate and activist. After several years as a public school teacher, I have since worked as an attorney for almost two decades.
Running a nonprofit and a law practice taught me organizational, personnel and financial management skills. As a mayor, I learned to balance the needs of different stakeholders while striving for efficient, ethical management of a complex system. All are important, but it is my history as an advocate for marginalized people and my commitment to issues of equity that make me most qualified for this position.
James Stanford: Orange County citizens deserve the best Clerk of Court’s office in the state. Providing such an office requires a leader with experience and commitment to meet the daily multifaceted demands of this office. Experience is the key qualification in being the Clerk of Superior Court, and I possess it. My record reflects that of a public servant who has faithfully served the citizens of Orange County for 17 years, all as the Clerk of Court.
Under my direction, the office of the Orange County Clerk of Superior Court has been run efficiently and effectively. We have transitioned during my tenure into an office that not only processes an enormous amount of a complex daily workload accurately and efficiently, but also does it collectively with a much better understanding of why we do what we do. The Orange County Clerk of Superior Court’s office has been run without incident during my tenure and has excelled over time in its performance of its duties. It has transformed from a scattered and fragmented office and staff to one that now has a central location, with a staff of 26 well-trained and effective assistant and deputy clerks.
Practicing law in Orange County for 10 years prior to being the clerk gave me and continues to give me insight into the purpose of the office and how to best run it. Under my direction and leadership, it has become a leader among the 100 Clerk of Superior Court offices throughout the state. I have a passion for what we do and how we do it; helping people solve problems daily. I wish to continue that commitment to the office in providing the best services possible.
Q. Is there anything about the clerk’s office that you would change? Why?
Mark Kleinschmidt: The Clerk’s office must become committed to offering high-quality service in a truly welcoming way, it must modernize and improve efficiency, and become a more effective partner with court system stakeholders to address justice reform.
Every resident of Orange County who seeks the services of the office should be confident they will be treated with respect notwithstanding their position in the community, who they are suing, what they are charged with, what they look like or how their families are constituted. The office should not dismiss efforts to be educated about how the lives of our diverse community interact with the law and should be aware of the collateral consequences of its decisions, and the work it does should be transparent to all.
As Clerk, my staff will participate in Racial Equity Institute training. I will meet with focus groups of attorneys and county residents to establish goals and benchmarks, not only around how people are treated, but also how successful we are at improving the efficiency of our work. Moreover, I will make our progress toward achieving those goals public.
We need an automated court notification system to reduce “called and failed” charges that increase the burden on our poorest residents. We must also limit the daily tide of paper that circulates around the courthouse and implement a more efficient system for document management. In addition, we must commit ourselves to being a laboratory for other improvements suggested by the recent report from the N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice.
The office is in desperate need of an improved web presence. Currently, it offers little more than the name of the elected Clerk and the address and telephone number of the office. I would increase the amount of information available to the public by adding an FAQ, and look to provide the ability to schedule meetings online. Wake County’s Clerk’s office already does this. Moreover, we should aspire to a site like Buncombe County, which has a very informative and user-friendly site that meets the expectation of modern internet users.
Finally, Orange County deserves a Clerk of Court who will be an enthusiastic partner with other stakeholders in the justice system to address justice-reform issues. We are fortunate to have a District Attorney's office, Public Defender's office, and judges on the bench who have been working toward creating and implementing reforms that are beginning to address the criminalization of poverty. We must prioritize the processing of expunction petitions to help people get back into the workforce, qualify for promotions and get enrolled in higher education.
Few officials, beyond lawyers involved in the cases, understand the impact of fines, fees and other costs on the poor. The personal interaction the Clerk has with individuals who are challenged with complying with these costs is a source of information that has enormous value in the creation of reform measures. Along with implementing an automated court notification system, the Clerk's office should be a constant student of other efforts to address minor Failure to Appear and Failure to Comply charges that are often responsible for starting the vicious cycle that disproportionately impacts the poor and leads to de facto debtor's prison sentences.
James Stanford: The technology used in the office needs to be improved dramatically. We continue to implement e-filing technology, moving towards a paperless court system. Requiring the filing and maintenance of public and other records in a paper format is outdated. While almost all of the technology decisions are made at the state level, I push for more and quicker action every chance I get.
The goal is for our citizens to interact with our judicial system without having to appear in the courthouse. Some technologies are already in place with electronic traffic tickets and NCAWARE (an electronic repository for criminal processes). Another example is the Electronic Compliance and Dismissal program that allows some minor traffic violations to be dismissed without the citizen ever coming to the courthouse. Overall, however, our court system’s current technology is woefully inadequate and not easy for a lay person to understand, use or even access.
The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts (NCAOC), which supplies and controls the existing electronic systems in the Clerks’ offices, has not kept up with the changes and advances occurring in the field of technology. The N.C. court system needs to take advantage of available existing technologies to make us more user-friendly and to make us more widely available to the public without citizens having to visit the courthouse. Collectively, the Clerks have pushed the NCAOC to make significant changes to the methodologies used in our offices. Recently, this push has gained traction, and we are hopeful that enormous changes are on the horizon. A movement has been recently initiated by the NCAOC to make significant advances in this area. I fully support its efforts to modernize our systems and look forward to working directly with the NCAOC in its efforts to do so.
Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb