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Chief justice tells courts to simplify flow chart

The reactions range from mild concern to outright revolt. Judges and circuit clerks are gearing up for the headaches they expect from a Supreme Court requirement that counties pick one official to oversee court clerks.

Two-thirds of the state’s counties already operate that way. But there are 37 counties plus the city of St. Louis, out of 115 political subdivisions, that don’t have circuit court personnel consolidated under a single authority who handles hiring, firing and moving people around as needed.

The directive covers circuit, associate and probate court clerical employees, known as courtroom clerks in the city, but not court reporters or court administrator staff.

Some judges have pushed for such a change for years and said the tough economy was the push needed to get everyone on the same page. But other court officials say their system works fine and the state has no business requiring them to change.

“I have argued with the State Courts Administrator’s Office and the Circuit Court Budget Committee and probably called them dictators and blackmailers,” said Cape Girardeau County Circuit Clerk Charles Hutson.

Nancy Griggs, director of court services in the Office of State Courts Administrator, explained that a simpler hierarchy won’t necessarily save big money but will make it easier to get the court’s work done when they have vacant positions. With one overall authority in charge, it’s simpler to move a clerk from the probate division, for example, to a trial division if one area is overstaffed and the other understaffed. Plus, it’s easier to cross-train people to cover each other’s duties in a pinch and to implement good practices across all of the court system if everyone shares a boss, she explained.

St. Louis County recently made the switch to a single authority overseeing clerks. But the city of St. Louis and Jackson County have most clerks under one official, but not all.

And in rural areas, there can be several people in charge of employees.

Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. sent a letter last month to inform circuit courts that consolidation will be required by Jan. 1. A formal court order laying out more specifics is expected soon. Price said budget pressures made the change necessary.

“I realize the effects of this directive will be significant, but the overall necessity of meeting the needs of our state and its citizens despite our decreased resources makes clear the need for this change,” Price wrote.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Steven Ohmer, chairman of the state’s Circuit Court Budget Committee, said the committee has pushed this idea for a long time “to make our courts more efficient and accountable.”

Ohmer said he has observed the challenges with more than one authority in the city of St. Louis. Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza oversees courtroom clerks in the circuit and associate divisions, and judges may have competing needs. Those who work in Probate Court are separate and supervised by the probate judge, who today is also Presiding Judge David Dowd.

“It can raise friction and inefficiencies at times,” Ohmer said.

“It’s imperative for not only our circuit but all circuits to be somewhat creative and innovative in dealing with the change in the landscape and not get caught up with petty power struggles, which is what’s inhibited consolidation to begin with,” he said.

Favazza said he presumes the probate division clerks will be moved under his office as well and employees shouldn’t worry that anything will change. Dowd said he awaits further guidance from the Supreme Court and until then it’s premature to speculate how the new structure will work.

Jackson County Court Administrator Teresa York didn’t anticipate a major problem in her court, where she oversees most clerks but probate staff also are handled separately. Associate judges also get to appoint a clerk each, she said. She expected the main result will be some administrative tasks such as changing bank account numbers for payroll.

Since 1996, the state Circuit Court Budget Committee has encouraged courts to consolidate their personnel under one official. In the past, the committee offered financial assistance if courts needed to spend a little money to make it happen, for items such as rolling file cabinets or a new phone system so all could share a main line. Sometimes staff also would get a nominal bump in pay. In December the committee warned that it was courts’ last chance to get financial aid to make the move.

Those last holdouts now will have to convert without any state help. Hutson, in Cape Girardeau, bristles at that and resents the state’s intervention.

He also doubts the move will result in budget savings but said it will result in extra stress for him, as the change could mean he oversees 21 employees, seven more than today.

“We had a system that worked. Why mess with it?” he asked.