Problems lead to more scrutiny in the Albemarle court clerk’s office

Albemarle Circuit Court Clerk Debra M. Shipp. Photo: Charlottesville Tomorrow. Albemarle Circuit Court Clerk Debra M. Shipp. Photo: Charlottesville Tomorrow.

For years, state auditors have been giving the Albemarle County Circuit Court Clerk’s office bad reviews, pointing out major record-keeping errors and costly failures in financial oversight. More than halfway through her eight-year term as Clerk, Debra M. Shipp says the problems that have plagued her office stem from a lack of staff support. But for some in Albemarle, the continued issues call into question whether her position should be an elected one at all.

As the record keeping and financial officer of the court, Shipp and her staff of nine are responsible for processing a vast amount of paperwork and checks each week, and take on a number of duties for the criminal and civil sides of the court.

Shipp had worked in the Circuit Court Clerk’s office since 1976 before she was elected clerk in 2007, replacing her former boss Shelby J. Marshall. In May 2009, problems showed up in the first audit of her office from the state, which cited delays in account reconciliations and a lack of staff training. Shipp chalked both issues up to personnel setbacks.

Each year since, the audit summary has grown as more issues cropped up. In June 2011, Auditor of Public Accounts Walter J. Kucharski noted Shipp’s office was holding more than $200,000 in state fines and court costs due to bookkeeping errors. Accounts were closed improperly, and the office was holding onto nearly $25,000 worth of copy fees that were supposed to be disbursed to the county and the Commonwealth.

That year, state Department of Judicial Services officials conducted a review of the Clerk’s office, and an analysis report, filed in December of 2011, raised even more concerns. Shipp’s personal office was clogged with boxes of paperwork, and several months’ worth of unprocessed checks were discovered on a shelf. The evidence room was so full the door was jammed, records were long overdue for destruction, and election results had sat in Shipp’s car for two weeks.

Kucharski’s most recent audit, released this month, showed more than half a million dollars in likely unclaimed property that should have been disbursed. Recordkeeping errors abounded, and problems noted years before persisted, prompting concerns about the potential for fraud. In his 28 years as a public auditor, Kucharski said he’s seen such errors “maybe once every 10 years.”

According to Shipp, the problem is a lack of manpower, and DJS’ 2011 management visit report backs her up, noting that office is understaffed. The State Compensation Board is responsible for funding her office, and the county supplements her budget by providing office space, health insurance, and a little extra toward salaries. Shipp said she’s turned to both for help, but has received little support.

Hiring hasn’t kept up with Albemarle’s population growth, Shipp said. By comparison, Charlottesville’s Circuit Court Clerk’s office has seven state-funded employees and two more paid for by the city, she said, “so they have the same amount of staff that I do, but we’re dealing with a population that’s twice as big.”

Things got worse in January, when her sister and deputy clerk Pam Melampy died suddenly. It was the second tragedy for Shipp in 12 months—her 21-year-old son died in a car accident the year before—and it caused personal and professional setbacks. For two weeks, Shipp struggled to cover the duties her sister had done.

“Finally I said, ‘I’ve got to get a grip,’ and I requested that the county advertise for the position and for a bookkeeper,” she said. Albemarle County human resources officials suggested she hire a temp to cover both jobs, and pushed for her office to join the county pay plan and have staff work eight hours a day instead of the seven that had been customary since the ’70s, which Shipp agreed to earlier this year.

Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford said it makes sense her own position and the Sheriff’s are elected, because they need be able to make legal judgements independent of other political offices. “But I question how many discretionary responsibilities are performed by the Clerk, such that you want to have that person responsive to the voters as opposed to responsive to some other organization that can oversee personnel and bookkeeping,” Lunsford said.

The practice of electing the Clerk is largely a holdover from an earlier era, said UVA law professor A.E. Dick Howard, who helped write the 1971 Constitution. “In the old days in Virginia, political power was really to be found in the courthouses,” he said.

When the team responsible for the updated 1971 Constitution looked into making clerk a statutory position—one that could be appointed if communities saw fit—they realized there was intense pressure to stick to the status quo. Maryland had tried to do just that two years before, and courthouse officials managed to block the state’s new Constitution from passing in the legislature.

“It was clear to me that if we proposed taking these officers out of the Constitution in politcal terms, we would run into a buzz saw,” Howard said. He’d personally be in favor of making the clerk a statutory position in order to give local governments more discretion in hiring and firing, he said. Currently, only a petition and judge’s order can remove a clerk from office. “But I think the gains might be more theoretical than real,” he said. What the office might gain in efficiency, it could lose in transparency.

Shipp said that despite a lack of resources, things are improving in the Clerk’s office. She doesn’t see a problem with serving an eight-year term. When she first took office, she said, a state official told her she’d be halfway through her term before she got things straightened out, “and as I can see it has,” Shipp said. “I’m not completely there yet.”

And will she run again when her term is up? “I’d certainly like to,” she said.

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