Audit of Clerk’s Offices is a Bad Scene

The Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts’ audits of the Charlottesville and Albemarle Circuit Courts Clerk’s Offices have found serious mistakes by both, Tasha Kates reports in the Daily Progress.

The audit of Debra Shipp’s office, in Albemarle (PDF) concludes that she “does not perform the required financial duties associated with her office,” specifically finding that she failed to pass along to the state $201k in fines and court costs, and is holding $255k that should be passed along to the state’s unclaimed property registry, among other significant failings. Out of a corpus of 48 cases that were analyzed for the audit, 25 (52%) had mistakes. Perhaps most alarming is this finding:

The Clerk again did not reconcile the operations bank account and resolve reconciling items for the entire audit period. In combination with two prior audits, the Clerk has not in effect reconciled the bank account since April 2008, a total of 32 months. It is critical the Clerk reconciles this account and makes necessary corrections to the accounting system monthly to ensure the bank statement, checkbook and accounting system agree.

Things aren’t quite as bad in Paul Garrett’s office, in the city, but that’s not saying much. The audit of his office (PDF) found that Garrett “does not properly enter fines and costs in the court’s automated accounting system,” as is required by state law. Of the corpus of 21 cases that were analyzed for the audit, 11 (52%) had mistakes.

Each report contains a letter of response from each clerk, explaining the cause of these problems and what their proposed solutions are. (Shipp notes in her letter, not incidentally, that her 21-year-old son died in a car accident in January, which has presumably caused the sorts of life-altering disruptions that one would expect.)

Wondering whether these sorts of problems are standard, or if this is unusual, I checked out the reports for Greene, Nelson, Fluvanna, Orange, Buckingham, and Augusta. All of them were flawless or quite nearly so.

The position of Clerk of Court is elected, for reasons that I’ve never quite understood. Shipp, a Democrat, was elected to an eight-year term in 2008. Garrett, also a Democrat, is running for reelection this year, and is being challenged for the nomination by two other Democrats, Pat Melampy and Llezelle Dugger.

30 thoughts on “Audit of Clerk’s Offices is a Bad Scene”

  1. Waldo, I suspected Clerk of Court was an (elected) constitutional office due to the politics of the Byrd Machine, and Wikipedia at least supports that… see which specifically mentions Clerk as the key office, while I had thought it was C.A. But it would have been the 1902 constitution that made it elected, well before Byrd, if not an earlier state constitution, n’est pas?

  2. Probably Byrd inherited the courthouse clique system and ramped it up. The 1902 system was tailor-made to disenfranchise black voters and put local politics in the hands of state machines. It eliminated an old county court system in favor of districts. All of which is probably wrong. :)

    By the way, we have a ridiculous judicial district that stretches all the way to Goochland. It really impedes the work of court-focused nonprofits based in Cville who try to distribute their volunteers throughout the district. Goochland is obviously Richmond now.

    Byrd history is tied up with state control of county roads too, and the debt-aversion goes all the way back to apportioning state debt after the Civil War between Virginia & West Virginia. Wikipediaed for the day.

  3. I wish we’d do something like that with all of our constitutional offices. I don’t have the faintest idea of what qualifies somebody to be a good Clerk of the Court. (Though I’m starting to get the idea of what should disqualify somebody.) Electing people to represent us is great. But electing people to do things in which we do not need representation makes no sense to me.

  4. And I’d like for Charlottesville to have a popularly elected Mayor running things rather than a City Manager.

  5. “Electing people to represent us is great. But electing people to do things in which we do not need representation makes no sense to me.”

    I oppose election of judges for this reason.

  6. And I’d like for Charlottesville to have a popularly elected Mayor running things rather than a City Manager.

    Whoo—that’s a tall order, and not something that I think would work for a city of this size. When one considers that the city is really a $120M/year business, you can imagine how small the population is, among our 40,000-odd residents, who is capable of running such a business. Then consider the small number of people capable of winning an election. Then consider the really small number of people in the overlap between those two circles.

    In New York, you can have a Bloomberg run the city. There are layers and layers of political proving grounds, along with an enormous population of people with lots of business experience. In Charlottesville, I don’t think it’s possible.

    That said, I’d love to see an elected mayor. Maybe like Harrisonburg does it—whomever gets the most votes becomes mayor? (It couldn’t be quite that simple, since we stagger the terms, but you get the idea.) The mayor is the figurehead for the city, and gets to set the agenda for council, so I think there’s some merit in electing the mayor.

    I oppose election of judges for this reason.

    Hell yes. I took a bunch of classes on the justice system for my degree (political science), including one on judicial process in which I studied elected vs. appointed judgeships. I went in thinking that electing judges made sense, but after looking at the data, I think it’s lunacy.

  7. This makes the upcoming election a bit more meaningful.

    As for the electing of the mayor, I agree with the comments about the judges, but barring that, more democracy is always a good thing. Remember the switch from the appointed to the elected school board was a good thing and increased democracy in Charlottesville. And now one of the school board members is running for clerk.

  8. If you want an elected Mayor in Charlottesville than vote for the Norris slate of candidates(just check out Mayor Dave standing behind them at their respective announcements). Some city dems tell me that Norris is angling to “go pro” and become the full time ($$$) Mayor. To do this he needs to elect a ticket of like minded councilors to make that happen.

  9. So does this definitively spell the end of Garrett as clerk?

    Is there any way he survives this? He was already on the ropes, and this seems like the haymaker that Dugger or Melampy would need, no?

  10. Melampy works in the County Clerk’s office for Debra Shipp, so I don’t see how this news helps her very much. If this makes Dugger the front-runner I wouldn’t be particulary upset by that, I’m almost at the point of having ‘anyone BUT Garrett’ bumperstickers printed.
    And an error rate over 50%?? are they occasionally getting things right by accident?

  11. I also heard the same Norris for Mayor rumor – I’m glad Waldo can set us straight. Perhaps it’s coming from those who don’t have Norris’s backing. I fear this could be a nasty primary before it’s all over.

  12. So does this definitively spell the end of Garrett as clerk?

    Is there any way he survives this? He was already on the ropes, and this seems like the haymaker that Dugger or Melampy would need, no?

    I certainly hope so, but there’s really no telling.

    I also heard the same Norris for Mayor rumor—I’m glad Waldo can set us straight.

    I don’t have any special knowledge here, I just think that the very concept is ludicrous. Turning the city into a strong mayor form of government would require years of work. It’d be a very big deal. Plus, the city studies everything to death—surely such a change would be preceded by a decade of studies and community groups and studies. Finally, a strong city manager form of government is progressive—the strong mayor form of government is seen as an approach that’s stuck in old ways. It would be highly uncharacteristic for liberal Democrats to advocate the elimination of our strong city manager.

  13. I think these comments about Norris are reflecting a larger concern,and this is coming from someone who voted for Norris and likes him personally. But I think the comments reflect a concern about this “running a ticket” behavior to get an specific agenda accomplished whether its a full time mayor, or the water or the parkway or whatever. The whole idea of a sitting mayor putting together a ticket (I assume its Smith, Cannon, Blount)is worrisome and gives me the willies. It comes off as a power grab. Especially since there are some very weak links in that ticket chain and some folks on it with less than stellar records of public service (and by this I mean take a look at school board history right before it went to an elected one), but they align ideologically with Norris. This is very troubling to me. Every candidate on that ticket should be looked at individually as far as their record and qualifications go. I hope the voters see this for what it is and just vote for the best candidates.

    Is Norris so bent out of shape about the water and the parkway that he would run a ticket with lousy candidates just to get a majority on the water and parkway? I don’t want to believe it but its looking more and more like that’s what’s happening (see the Cville Tom. blog on the election from a couple days a go). If it is true , then I am voting against the ticket on principle. Did he quit his job to go full time on this campaign? I have the same bad feeling that this could be a nasty campaign before all is said and done. But what I am more worried about is if that ticket gets elected it will be a city council with more politics of division and nastiness that have surrounded the water and County-bashing behavior. This ticket-building behavior seems like the first salvo and I wish Norris would rethink his aims and goals. The ends often times don’t justify the means and vice versa. Does this ticket really represent the citizens of Charlottesville?

  14. So does this definitively spell the end of Garrett as clerk?

    Is there any way he survives this? He was already on the ropes, and this seems like the haymaker that Dugger or Melampy would need, no?

    Now that I’m home, I want to take a few minutes to write a slightly longer response to this. The trick with Garrett is that he’s lived in this town for a long time (is he from here?), and he knows plenty of people who will turn out and vote for him. The question is whether their enthusiasm—or perhaps vote—is going to be influenced by this audit. Garrett’s problem is that this audit reinforces what many people already believe about him. I don’t know Garrett’s friends and supporters. I don’t have any idea how they’re going to take this news, or what effect that it’s going to have.

    The other wildcard here is the Charlottesville Democrats’ use of a firehouse primary. Rather than a closed event where people have to stay and vote in round after tedious round, a firehouse primary is more like a regular election—people show up at the appointed place where the primary is being held at the time of their convenience during a day, and cast their vote. This gets way more turnout—it’s not even close—and there are going to be a lot of people going in to vote for Council who will be casting votes for this race while they’re there. The task of the other two candidates is going to be to convince those voters, who may not otherwise care about this race, to a) vote in this race and b) not vote for Garrett.

    The best shot that Garrett has is to get 33.4% of the vote. And, with three candidates for the nomination, he could win with that percentage. That said, the Council election is being done with instant runoff voting (IRV), where people rank the candidates in order of preference. If IRV is being applied to this race, too, then that probably bodes poorly for Garrett, because that eliminates the splitting-the-vote concern that comes in three way races.

  15. Shipp is a first-termer in office, that could account for some of the mistakes.
    Garrett has held his office for decades. Whats his excuse for running the worst court clerk’soffice in the state?
    Historically, the city manager form of government came about in this country back in the Progressive Era and was seen as a way to check the waste, graft, and inefficiency seen in cities governed by a powerful mayoral machine.
    A city manager is an administrator,someone who needs to be capable of managing affairs on a day to day basis. Experience and ability should trump political popularity which is what an elected mayor would bring.
    The present system of the mayor being the spokesperson for the city(kind of like the Queen of England while the Prime Minister does the actually governing), and chair of City Council works well.
    What we need is a different make-up of City Council, an end to the clique of cronies that has had a stranglehold for years, and which has gotten worse in the Norris era. Somehow, some way we need to get Independents and Republicans holding a majority on Council and end one party, one faction rule which is steadily dragging the city down.

  16. @HB: “A city manager is an administrator,someone who needs to be capable of managing affairs on a day to day basis. Experience and ability should trump political popularity which is what an elected mayor would bring.”

    And what did our present system of selecting an administrator yield and why?

  17. “Experience and ability should trump political popularity which is what an elected mayor would bring.”

    Explain that in light of the current situation.

  18. if i recall correctly, having “constitutional officers” elected by voters — which includes clerk of court, sheriff, treasurer, commissioner of revenue and commonwealth’s attorney — was something Thomas Jefferson specifically wrote into the constitution of Virginia. I believe it was Jefferson’s thinking that it would keep government officials more accountable to the people. localities are able to make exceptions to this rule for certain officers.

  19. I don’t think that could be so, Jane—the idea of electing so many positions was very much a Jacksonian Democracy thing.

    But I’m glad you mentioned it, because this was an excuse to look at our original state constitution, which I’m embarrassed to admit that not only had I never read, but I’d never even thought about reading. Here’s the relevant bit:

    The Governor, with the advice of the Privy Council, shall appoint Justices of the Peace for the counties; and in case of vacancies, or a necessity of increasing the number hereafter, such appointments to be made upon the recommendation of the respective County Courts. The present acting Secretary in Virginia, and Clerks of all the County Courts, shall continue in office. In case of vacancies, either by death, incapacity, or resignation, a Secretary shall be appointed, as before directed; and the Clerks, by the respective Courts. The present and future Clerks shall hold their offices during good behaviour, to be judged of, and determined in the General Court. The Sheriffs and Coroners shall be nominated by the respective Courts, approved by the Governor, with the advice of the Privy Council, and commissioned by the Governor. The Justices shall appoint Constables; and all fees of the aforesaid officers be regulated by law.

    Looks to me like the idea was that these positions would be appointed, rather than elected. Including coroners. :)

  20. Back then coroners may have been able to hold semi-judicial inquests, even with juries, as in the U.K. and some provinces of Canada. Up there it’s an issue whether a judicial coroner system is better than the professional coroner system we have here.

    The “appointments by the court” clauses suggest the 1902 constitution may have been the one start elections, as it eliminated county courts. But I’m too lazy to read the intervening constitutions!

  21. Well, I can see why you thought that—the site states it quite explicitly!

    Thomas Jefferson believed deeply that government works best when it is close to the people and ultimately responsible to them through the ballot box. In Virginia, the public elects not just its local, state and federal representatives but also its constitutional officers, so named because their offices are specifically established by the Constitution of Virginia. This system dates back to the earliest days of the nation and is based on the presumption that the most important services of government should be made directly accountable to the citizens by popular vote.

    Although I don’t think I know enough about it to say for sure, my understanding of history and based on the bit that I’ve read from the state constitution, I don’t think that’s true. It was under our 7th president, and the style of representation that he popularized, that we came to elect so many positions. OTOH, he also was all about the spoils system, and figured that whoever won election should be able to appoint lots and lots of people, with little restraint on that—I have no idea what the guy thought about constitutional officers. :)

    On the other hand, This Senate Finance Committee presentation (PDF) says that “locally-elected [sic] constitutional officers have a long history in Virginia, dating back to the first constitution of 1776.” But I just don’t understand that, because a cursory reading of that constitution just isn’t turning up anything that supports that.

  22. I agree with Waldo on the issue of elected Mayors. I am curious, though, as to which of the current five councilors would those of you who favor an elected Mayor have voted for to be a full-time Mayor if we did not allow for a City Manager to run City Hall? I’ll go first, none of them since I did not vote for any of them in the first place.

  23. I think that if we had an elected mayor, with powers and pay appropriate, we would attract a different and more diverse pool of candidates.

    In other words, none of the current councilors applied for THAT job, so it’s problematic to say, “Which one would you vote for in a mayoral election?”

  24. Well I would have voted for Norris as elected mayor if he hadn’t gone all crazy on the water and parkway issues, turing the coming election into sour grapes-pay back campaign, and wasn’t actively campaigning for people to be on Council with him to over turn those decisions-like a little junta. The idea of a sitting mayor doing that just doesn’t sit well.

    if I had to vote now, it would probably be for Szakos.If I had to vote next January, it would probably be for Kathy Galvin.

  25. I see more than a little spin masquerading as “truth to power.”

    Junta, really? For wanting other people on council who who hold similar views about important decisions regarding the city’ future?

    I’m no Norris fan at all, I think he’s not very bright, not really much of a leader, and obviously has NO experience managing large budgets, but I’m totally with him on the issues of the water supply and the Parkway.

    Now that slippery, slidey, “Dr.” Brown is on the way out I’m all for Norris doing what he can to fix the damage done durning his tenure. Campaigning on behalf of people who can help is obviously step one.

  26. What? No City Manager? No way…

    boomp, chee boomp, chee boomp.…boomp, chee boomp, chee boomp,

    Now this is the story all about how,
    My life got flipped and turned upside down.
    I’d like to take a minute so just sit real still,
    And I’ll tell you how I became the prince of C’ville.

    In northern Virginia I was born and raised,
    In the library readin’ is where I spent most of my days.
    With my nose in a book I wasn’t all that cool,
    Especially to the dudes shootin’ ball outside o’ my school.

    One day in the hall those guys wouldn’t let me pass,
    So I said leave me alone or I’m gonna kick your ass.
    I got in one little fight and my momma got scared,
    And she said “You’re going to JMU”, as I blankly stared.

    Well I signed up, did the classes, and I got my degree,
    A BS in Communications, but decided that was all for me.
    Then I went on the TV just a readin’ out sports,
    And spent the rest of my time at the crib chillin’ out in my shorts.

    When out of the blue I get a call to be Gary’s right hand man,
    And I said “damn” if I do this I could move out of this can.
    So I got me a couple of guys and we built up this club,
    Where I called the shots during any big city hubbub.

    But spinnin’ the truth for me got old too fast,
    So I tried academia thinkin’ it was something that just might last.
    But that didn’t make it either so I ended up right back here at the hall,
    After RST went south to be the queen of the ball.

    The G man was next to bail, but I made sure before he left,
    That he leaned on those council folks in my behalf.
    So after some feigned interviews it was all finally real,
    And I was sitting on my throne as the Fresh Prince of C’ville.

    boomp, chee boomp, chee boomp.…boomp, chee boomp, chee boomp,

Comments are closed.