February 6, 2013

Buckner wonders about extra money

Magistrate court using volunteers to sort through records backlog

Rachel Brown

CHATSWORTH — Gale Buckner said she doesn’t yet know why the amount of money in the Murray County Magistrate Court’s checking account is about five times what she would expect it to be, but she’s working to find where the money really belongs.

Buckner, who was appointed chief magistrate in November after Bryant Cochran resigned in the middle of an investigation, said she’s still looking through the office’s past financial reports. Her preliminary findings show the average monthly amount on the court’s books for about the past year is around $250,000. For comparison, she said, the average amount in Whitfield County where the population is more than double that in Murray is about $100,000. The average in counties Murray’s size is between $40,000 and $50,000, she said.

“We need to identify where these monies belong,” Buckner said. “That’s going to be a fairly lengthy process.”

She said she suspects a large amount of the money should have been paid out to beneficiaries, but she doesn’t know whether the money came from wage garnishments or through other means and where it belongs. She hopes to know more by the end of the month.

The Chatsworth native said she is working through that personally, but she’s also having office staff work through mounds of paperwork from old cases, many of which she said haven’t been properly filed with state officials. For that task, she has former Superior Court clerk Connie Reed as her recently named head clerk as well as “loaner” employees from other county departments.

Buckner said she was doing interviews last week after the office took in 110 applications for the two deputy clerk positions that are open since all the previous office staff walked out. The jobs were posted after the clerk and two secretaries said they didn’t like working conditions under Buckner. The three former employees recently received right to sue letters from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) after filing complaints that they were in a “hostile, sexually-charged” work environment under Cochran.

Cochran has denied sexual charges against him after he resigned in the middle of an ethics investigation and admitted he pre-signed — but never issued — a handful of warrants. The complaints against him have snowballed to include a federal investigation and charges against a then-Murray County Sheriff’s Office deputy. The judicial circuit’s four Superior Court judges appointed Buckner to fill the rest of Cochran’s term.

Volunteers are backing her up. Several women with secretarial experience have been giving their time free of charge to get the issues quickly resolved. A newly implemented software program, one Buckner said was selected before she came to work in November, will help prevent future backlogs, she said. Currently, some of the files date back to 2007, and human hands are needed to get everything in order.

Retired Shaw worker Betty Spivey said she came in to help because she felt that with all the problems in the office, Buckner was getting “a bum deal.”

“I want to see her succeed,” Spivey said.

Lynn Duncan, who knows Buckner from attending Holly Creek Baptist Church, said the new chief has high expectations of professionalism.

“Anybody who knows Gale knows that while she has high expectations, she’s fair and she’s kind,” Duncan added.

McCracken Poston, an attorney for the three women who resigned, said that while Buckner was “still a breath of fresh air for Murray County when compared to Bryant Cochran,” she was implementing policies unequally among employees, creating poor morale and assigning busy work.

Buckner didn’t comment directly on her relationship with specific employees, but she said she put in place several changes she believes will make the office more efficient and professional including having everyone in the office learn how to do everything so employees can cover for one another as needed.

The court is currently in a section of the bottom floor of the Murray County Annex, but Buckner said she’s in discussions with Sole Commissioner Brittany Pittman about moving the offices to the county jail.

The sheriff’s office has announced plans to open the new portion of the jail within a couple of months, possibly freeing up some space in the old section for other kinds of use. Buckner said the details are still being hashed out, but if they are able to make the move to a larger space, judges could likely hold bond hearings every day as needed because moving inmates to and from the courtroom would be so much easier.

Buckner was interviewing candidates for the two openings on Tuesday and said she hoped to have permanent employees in place soon. She shared a story about a woman who had recently come in with her husband to apply. The man had said he came because he had heard such horror stories about working in the magistrate office, so he wanted to see for himself whether the environment would be safe for his wife.

“I thought that was so sad that in a county government environment, someone would be fearful to let a loved one come in and put in an application,” she said.

Chris Fowler, one of the part-time elected magistrate judges, said he has worked in the office for 15 years and believes this is the citizens’ court.

“A lot of times (with) the civil side of it, people just want to be heard,” he said. “This is their court.”


Game changes

Murray County Chief Magistrate Gale Buckner has implemented several changes since taking office in November. They include:

• Judges may no longer hear cases in chambers. Every case must be heard in a courtroom, which allows members of the public to be present.

• Every case must be recorded, either by audio or a court reporter.

• Job descriptions for office employees have been rewritten, and the position of secretary essentially eliminated. Instead, office staff, once hired, will include a clerk and two deputy clerks.

• Changing some accounting practices upon recommendation by a firm, including giving more than one employee the ability to review the money that comes through the court.

• The nCourt system is in the process of being put in place to allow people to pay fees and fines and conduct other business online. User fees will pay for the system, so it comes at no additional cost to the county.