Morgan County Circuit Clerk John Pat Orr is retiring after nearly 18 years in office.
During a six-year span, Orr saw his staff reduced from 22 to 10 employees because of state budget cuts. His successor will manage an office that includes multiple divisions, including circuit, district and juvenile courts. Employees are divided among the divisions.
In the Nov. 6 general election, voters will choose between Republican Chris Priest, an attorney, and former minister Martin Steelmon, a Democrat.
The Daily posed questions to the candidates.
Question: Why are you running for circuit clerk?
Answer: I’ve spent my life serving others. I considered running for public office when I was presented with the possibility of serving Morgan County through the circuit clerk’s office. After studying the position, I realized that the post is not a political office, but a place of public service. Many close friends and associates helped me to realize that my level of education and background of finance and ministerial service over the past 30 years was a combination well-suited for the position.
Q: What is the circuit clerk’s role in the judicial process?
A: It is varied, but simply put, the circuit clerk is a liaison between the people of Morgan County and their judicial system. The law prohibits the clerk from giving legal advice, however, he is
every citizen’s representative in matters such as jury duty, the acquisition of passports and a wide range of family issues. The clerk is also charged with several election-related duties. As part of an election board in conjunction with the judge of probate and the sheriff, the clerk administers absentee voting and canvasses county election results.
Q: Alabama has a unified judicial system, and for several years the courts have been underfunded because of revenue shortages. Budget cuts last year left the Morgan clerk’s office with 10 employees when it should have 22. How will you manage an office with a short staff?
A: The same way our outgoing circuit clerk has done for the past 18 years — with diligence and patience. In meeting with Orr and discussing the various challenges that lie ahead, I have developed a great appreciation and respect for the work being done by the present staff, which is caught between an ever-increasing workload in a growing community and a shrinking state budget. Those 10 staffers have decades of combined experience, and I look forward to their input.
Q: When and if the system receives another drastic cut, are you prepared to deal with it?
A: Yes. However, the circuit clerk and staff, as do many others in public service, have no control over the issues which affect our state revenues or the budget restraints with which they may find themselves placed under. Over half of the staff has been lost in recent years due to matters arising from proration. The circuit clerk’s budget is appropriated from Montgomery, and while no one wants to see even more cuts, they very well may come.
Q: It’s important for a circuit clerk to have knowledge about what district and circuit judges do, as well as the jury process for civil and criminal trials. Do you have that knowledge?
A: Certainly. Having served as a juror in a serious criminal case, I quickly became aware of the importance of a fair and impartial court system. My role as circuit clerk working with our distinguished judges will be to facilitate record-keeping for the courts, but never to become involved in the interpretation of law. There is a major distinction between my role as clerk and that of a circuit judge.
Q: Because of the lack of employees in the office, you might have to help perform some of the duties. Would you be able to do so?
A: Yes. Anyone who finds himself in a new position must make the job their own, and I have been assured by the outgoing clerk that I would have open and unlimited access to the office staff and environment for the weeks between election day and the swearing-in date in January. I anticipate acquiring an even stronger grasp of the challenges that come with the office. The circuit clerk should be willing to do any job that his staff is required to do.
Q: What would you do to keep the circuit clerk’s office current and efficient to avoid a backlog of cases?
A: For anyone to remain current, they must continually educate themselves. I look forward to the opportunities presented by the state, which not only offers, but requires all circuit clerks to stay current through continuing education. Additionally, I will seek out the advice of other clerks in our state to find out how they and their staffs are staying current and improving service to their communities.
Q: Why should voters elect you over your opponent?
A: Life experience. I understand this job. I possess the education, experience and the skill sets required. Your circuit clerk is a record-keeper. He is a financial officer. He is a problem-solver. All these duties and a multitude of others mean one thing: to be the circuit clerk is to be a servant. For the past 30 years, first in banking, then in ministry, I’ve come to understand that serving others is the greatest joy in life.
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