New Castle News

Closer Look

May 9, 2014

Bill would un-elect court clerks

HARRISBURG — Court clerks win their jobs at the ballot box, but some want local judges, not voters, to fill the position given the risk of mismanagement and fraud.

Eighty-nine elected officials handle files of county courts in Pennsylvania. Clerks cover criminal cases, while prothonotaries deal with civil matters. In some counties, the same official handles both chores.

A bill in the Senate would remove those clerks from the ballot and make them court employees. Supporters of the change — including some clerks — say it ensures accountability and uniform operations in local courthouses.

“Although being elected means I have a job for four years, I work for the court,” Judy Enslen, clerk in Beaver County, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

David Buell, prothonotary for Cumberland County, said three voters in his election wrote on their ballots: “Why are we electing this office?”

“No one knows how to say it, spell it or knows what we do,” he said.

Pennsylvania and Delaware are the only two states that still use the term “prothonotary” to describe court clerks.

Their jobs aren’t just obscure, they’re susceptible to mismanagement. Poor record keeping and cases of outright theft have plagued court offices across the state for years, according to the state auditor and media reports.

In some cases, Buell said, clerks or prothonotaries likely would have been fired had they not held elected jobs.

The state auditor checks the books of county court offices, though rarely, and there’s no timetable for how often the audits occur. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said his budget has been cut so badly, it’s difficult to get the job done.

Last year, DePasquale’s office released findings that detailed problems in the clerk of courts and prothonotary offices in Northumberland County — including misappropriation of money by a former employee — between 2006 and 2009.

Allegations against the employee were first brought to light by the clerk of courts/prothonotary Kathleen Strausser. Though an accounting firm later found as much as $9,400 could have been stolen, the employee, Annette Gurba, pleaded guilty to theft in 2011 and was ordered to pay $1,000 in restitution.

In nearby Schuylkill County, longtime clerk Stephen Lukach resigned last month amid a probe into missing funds, according to The Associated Press.

A state audit in 2010 noted “several significant weaknesses in the internal controls over receipts” in his office, but it wasn’t until an internal audit last year that Lukach was accused of using public money to make personal purchases, including making a monthly car payment for much of 2013.

Audits have turned up less serious problems in other clerks’ offices.

A 2010 audit of Lawrence County court offices raised questions about how restitution payments are directed. A year earlier auditors found the Somerset County clerk’s office sitting on 370 checks — worth $71,000 — written between 2006 and 2009 and never cashed.

DePasquale said county offices should be audited every four years. But cuts have left him with the smallest staff his office has had “in a generation” — 475 employees down from 900 in the 1990s — slowing his work.

Mercer County Prothonotary Ruth Bice, whose office received a clean audit last August, said most clerks and prothonotaries would welcome becoming court employees instead of politicians.

Those who object might worry about being barred, as court employees, from the politicking that won them election, she said.

Also, as independent officials, prothonotaries and clerks set their own hours, Bice said, meaning some of her peers “come and go as they please.” Answering to a judge, those officials likely would be expected to work full time.

Bice said the idea doesn’t bother her, because she already works full time.

At last week’s hearing, the only objections were raised by officials in larger counties who worried the legislation doesn’t provide money to make court officials state employees. Counties, they argued, would be asked to subsidize the cost.

Sen. Donald White, R-Indiana County, introduced the legislation, pointing to a similar move in 2000 to reclassify court administrators as court employees rather than county workers.

“I believe placing them under the direction of the president judge would better assure proper staffing, funding and efficiency,” he wrote in a memo seeking legislative support for the plan.

The change is supported by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)

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