CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — Voters in Chesterfield County will select their new Circuit Court Clerk in a special election on Tuesday. On the ballot, voters can select one of the four candidates and decide on the future leadership within their courthouse.
Running for the office are two current employees of the Chesterfield and Virginia justice system, Wendy Hughes and Kelly Ecimovic. Also in the running are former Google employee Peter Dunnaville and local bail bondsman Wayne Schneider.
According to the candidates, the office of the Chesterfield County Circuit Court Clerk is not widely recognized by the public and the ideal court clerk works without much public notice. Much of the current campaign for the office is focused on modernizing Chesterfield’s justice system and repairing relationships between the offices of its judges, sheriffs and court clerk.
Last April, Judy Worthington retired from the position for health reasons after 22 years on the job. During recent years, she had also been routinely at odds with sheriffs, judges and administrators in the county.
After her most recent spat with County Administrator James J. L. Stegmaier in March, Worthington lost seven employees from her office after threatening to cut “courtesy services” to the court. Worthington’s actions were a response to not having her request for an staff increase met. One month later Worthington announced her retirement.
“While the office has been nationally and internationally recognized, and received awards relating to its efficiencies, customer service and technological innovations, I am especially proud of our efforts to remain exemplary stewards of public funds, and to ensure integrity and proper application of the law in all that we do,” Worthington wrote to Chesterfield County Supervisor James Holland at the time.
Leaving her position, Worthington tapped assistant Mary E. Craze to serve as interim clerk with 18 months left in her term. Within a month of her resignation, the county announced a special election would be held this November to fill the remaining year-long vacancy.
“I think she ran the office politically. A lot of the actions she did, I think they were motivated by either her politics or her ego,” said Dunaville, one of the candidates attempting to succeed Worthington. “I’m running as a Democrat. I’m on the Democratic ticket, but I don’t think it’s a political office.”
Dunnaville joined the campaign late in August, challenging Republican and Independent candidates Hughes and Schneider. Last month, Ecimovic also joined the race late on an independent ticket as the fourth candidate.
Promising to cut her own salary if necessitated by budget shortfalls, Ecimovic said she joined the race to change a court system which she could no longer watch fall into disarray.
“I will spend my time working exclusively for the people of Chesterfield; not fulfilling quid pro quo obligations,” Ecimovic wrote in an e-mail interview. “I am not in this race for personal gain. I am in it because I can’t just complain about what needs to change and wait for someone else to act. I am acting to affect needed change.”
In addition to the struggle for resources and staff, a debate is going on regarding whether court filings should be placed online. Throughout her career, Worthington stopped efforts to transfer and publish records electronically. Since her departure, Craze has placed criminal court proceedings and filings online.
Civil court proceedings are still kept in office, requiring litigants to visit the clerk’s office to see them.
“Chesterfield now has 327,000 people making it the third largest county in Virginia. The courts need to be digitized,” Dunnaville said. “Costs and expenses are getting overbearing. It’s not cost-effective, because you have to store paper and make numerous copies. You wouldn’t do business with a Fortune 500 company, if they stored all their records on paper.”
All four candidates have said they support putting all records online in order to increase transparency and become more cost-effective.
Working as a Quality Rater for Google and a legal technologist for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in San Francisco, Dunnaville said he believes he has gained the experience and knowledge relevant to electronic record keeping.
Despite her opponent’s background in information technologies, Hughes said her experience as both the Juvenile Court and the Virginia Supreme Court’s clerk is on par with Dunnaville expertise. During her time at the Supreme Court, Hughes said she managed a team that converted the statewide case management system to a more contemporary Java Web-based system.
“Not only am I intimately familiar with the statewide management system, but I know the programmers and IT department in the Supreme Court that make it happen and make it work,” Hughes said. “I contact them every week. I’m in contact with them in the court system of the JDR court whenever we have any problems.”
Hughes said she was nominated by fellow Republicans and colleagues for the position. Since announcing her candidacy, Hughes has been endorsed by current county Sheriff Karl Leonard, Commonwealth Attorney William Davenport, Chesterfield Board of Supervisors vice-chairman Steve Elswick and 7th Congressional District Republican candidate Dave Brat.
“My concern with (the other candidates’) background is that they don’t have the extent of the experience that I do,” Hughes said. “I am a clerk of court. I know what it takes. It’s nice to say you want to make a change, but when you don’t understand the complexities of what change entails, you might not be in the best position to do that.”
Despite Hughes’ overwhelming cast of supporters and endorsements, Schneider, a former Costco manager and current bail bondsman for Zimmerman Bail Bonding Co. believes his experience working with the justice system since 2002 makes him a viable candidate as well.
Because of his direct work with the courts and county magistrates, Schneider said he’s been encouraged by colleagues who believe his personality and work ethic could transform the office and relationships that have since been soured.
“I like helping people. As court of clerk, the citizens of Chesterfield put their faith in you if voted into office,” Schneider said. “You should be able to control that office and increase the visibility of service and documents needed. I’m running for office because I have a niche to be able to get people to do things.”
This story was reported by the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project, a cooperation between WTVR.com and VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.