‘Desperate measures’: Circuit Court Clerk’s office closes for lunch hour

By BRAD GASKINS / Staff Writer

COLUMBIANA – The Shelby County Circuit Court Clerk’s office, starting July 1, will be closed to the public from noon to 1 p.m.

The reduced hours come as the office braces for state-ordered layoffs scheduled for Aug. 1.

The layoffs would reduce the workforce at each clerk’s office throughout the state by 35 percent, said Shelby County Court Clerk Marry Harris, whose office would be reduced from 16 to 10 full-time employees.

Harris said she regrets having to close her office to the public during lunch hour.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Harris said June 28.

Citing a 2007 manpower study conducted by the state, Harris said her office should be staffed with 31 employees. Instead, it has 16 employees and four open positions that haven’t been filled because of a hiring freeze.

With 16 full-time employees, the clerk’s office has four fewer employees than it had in 2001. From 2001 to 2010, case filings nearly doubled, increasing from 22,135 to 41,371.

“I haven’t received full-time people to take care of the caseload,” Harris said.

In addition to full-time employees, the office currently has four temporary workers, after having eight temporary workers in 2010.

Harris has asked the county commission to hire two temporary workers and assign them to her office.

“It will be impossible to perform the work necessary to run this office with only 10 employees,” Harris wrote in a May 19 letter to County Commission Chairman Corley Ellis, adding, “these are desperate times for the court system.”

By the Aug. 1 layoff date, Harris’ office will have already been reduced from 16 to 14 full-time employees.

Deputy Clerk Lou Lawley retires June 30 after 33 years with the office, Harris said. Ruth Gwin, supervisor of the clerk’s criminal court office, retires July 29 after 29 years of service, Harris said.

Jill Smitherman, the assistant criminal court supervisor, will fill Gwin’s position, Harris said, adding she can’t hire a replacement for Lawley.

After the Aug. 1 layoffs, with its 35-percent reduction, Shelby County would have the least staffed office at 32.77 percent, just edging Geneva County at 32.95 percent.

After the 35-percent reduction, Shelby County would have the same number of actual full-time employees – 10 – as Cullman County. Based on percentage from the manpower study, Cullman County after Aug. 1 would be staffed at 51.41 percent, serving a county with a population of 80,400.

Shelby County, meanwhile, would be staffed at 32.95 percent and serving a population of 195,100.

Harris said her office is already backlogged in all court divisions, including: three days for small claims, two weeks for district civil, four weeks for circuit civil, four weeks for domestic relations, three weeks for child support, two weeks for juvenile and one week for criminal cases.

All small claims and district civil filings are now filed electronically.

“The number one goal the court system could benefit from would be the decision to go paperless in all divisions of court,” Harris wrote in a June 15 letter to Presiding Circuit Judge Hewitt Conwill and County Manager Alex Dudchock.

E-filing and computers and “wonderful,” Harris said June 28.

“But,” she added, “it eventually gets to the point that we’ve got to have warm bodies to input the data.”