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Council debates court clerk services

Article Date: 
19 July, 2013 (All day)

The Morgan County Council is split over how to handle Second District Court clerk functions in the county.
“You, as a council, have obligated me, an elected official, to a contract I cannot fulfill,” said Morgan County Clerk Stacy Lafitte.  
Currently, the county provides office space and pays 35 percent of the court clerk’s wages and benefits ($50,000) while the Second District Court handles the remainder.  The current contract requires the clerk to be available to file court cases and accept payments five days each week.  However, regular county offices are only open four days each week. 
The difference between the state’s five-day week and the county’s four-day week creates a security problem for the court clerk, who sits alone in an otherwise empty county building one day each week.  In addition, if the clerk must take a Friday off, a fill-in must be found among county officials and employees who aren’t usually required to work on Friday.  In the past, Lafitte has covered for the clerk.
“We are failing to fulfill portions of the contract,” Lafitte said. “The biggest one is the Friday issue.  They demand we have a body here, a female alone on Fridays.  She is our employee and (the district court) does not have to provide security to her.  We cannot accept money on Fridays because the treasurer is not here.”
If the contract were terminated, the court would be responsible for fully funding a position in Morgan County.  After speaking with court facility representatives, Morgan County Councilman Ned Mecham said they would pay for 1.75 people to be present five days each week.  If Friday security is an issue, the court would be responsible for paying for any remedies. If county officials would like the court clerk to have a presence in the county building, they would be responsible for leasing space to the court.  Otherwise, the court would find another office space in the county.
Lafitte said terminating the contract would financially benefit the county, since the county is currently subsidizing $19,000 for the clerk to have a seat in the county offices.
“If they take away the contract level and it becomes district level, this becomes their issue,” Lafitte said.  “They will have two employees.  This becomes their court and a two-person show no longer focused on a county level.  These two people can accept money orders, cash and credit cards at their own satellite station in our building.  If they have a security issue, they provide it.”
Lafitte said terminating the current contract would lead to better customer service for court patrons.
“The district has the ability to provide better customer service than I can.  They have all the answers: security, Friday, locations, payments,” Lafitte said.  “I cannot fulfill the obligations of this contract.  I am asking you to turn it over to the district and let them fund it.”
What concerned Mecham, however, is that the court representatives said it is their “current model” to have a live person in Morgan.  Some council members are worried that if the court’s “current model” changes, a computer kiosk and 1-800 help phone number will replace a live clerk in the future.
“I feel it is important to have a court here and a person here,” Mecham said.  “For the time being, my vote is to keep the court here and not change a thing because we are about service.”
“My concern is does this open the door to the state to move our services to another county so our citizens have to drive to Ogden,” Councilman Robert Kilmer said.  “There is no question once that current model changes, all bets are off.  We will have a computer kiosk and have to call computer help lines.”
The county attorney weighed in on the matter.
“I think it is the court’s problem to get a clerk up here who is trained, with access to files,” said Jann Farris.
Sheriff Blaine Breshears said if asked, he would not provide security to the clerk on Fridays.
“You are asking for trouble to stick a bailiff alone with a female in this building every Friday,” Breshears said.  “I am not going to go there.”
Council Chairwoman Tina Kelley said the county may have to entertain going back to a five-day work week to solve the problem.
“The county has entered into a contract they can’t keep,” said Councilman Logan Wilde.
Morgan County is not alone.  Mecham said seven other counties have a contract site deal with state courts.  When ranking those, Morgan is second from the top in the number of cases handled.  
Already, all civil, domestic and probate court cases must be filed electronically.
Since electronic filing has become available, the court clerk’s phone calls and emails coming in have decreased, said Deputy Clerk/Auditor Teresa Lake.  
The council was split 3-3 in a vote to terminate the contract.  Mecham, Kilmer and Daryl Ballantyne voted against terminating the current contract.  Wilde was not present for the vote.
The council will hear the issue again on an August agenda, when Second District Court representatives can attend the meeting and the full council will be able to vote.