NEW PORT RICHEY — Paula O'Neil was 16 years old when she got the call from her boss. She was at her childhood home just south of St. Louis and had a job as a hostess at a local restaurant called Burger Chef. It was her day off, outside it was snowing, and her boss wanted to know if she could come in to help.
She said no and hung up. Her mother told her to call back.
"It taught me a lesson," she said last month in an interview.
"If your employer calls …"
Go to work.
Now she wants her boss to be … you.
"The public," she said. "The citizens."
O'Neil is running against Robert Altman in the race for Pasco County Clerk of the Circuit Court. O'Neil, 52, and a Republican, is the chief deputy in the clerk's office, and Altman, also 52, and a Democrat, is a veteran local lawyer.
The winner gets to replace Jed Pittman, who is retiring after 32 years as clerk.
This race pits O'Neil's experience working in the office against Altman's experience working with it.
"I feel very prepared to be the clerk," O'Neil said. "I feel very confident in what the requirements are. It doesn't make sense to hand the keys over to somebody who doesn't know the office."
Altman, though, thinks a Pittman-to-O'Neil transfer would be too much of same old, same old.
"I think there is a little bit of the good old boys network in there," he said.
"I think I've got more experience in the courts than my opponent. I've got a very good practical knowledge of the courts system and how it operates."
The office of the clerk of the court isn't something most folks think about on a daily basis. But it's plenty important.
Big job, too.
Ever been summoned for jury duty?
Gotten a passport?
Paid a traffic ticket?
Been involved in a court case?
The clerk of the court is in charge of the office that sorts, files and protects the millions of records of Pasco and its people. Last year, the office, with nearly 400 employees and a budget of $28-million, processed 10,000 passports, handled 129,000 court cases, recorded 200,000 official documents and handled 2.9-million court documents. The clerk also acts as the county treasurer, auditor and chief financial officer.
"It's one of the most important administrative positions in the county," Altman said.
O'Neil calls it "the hub of county government."
O'Neil is a political novice but a longtime civil servant. She moved here from South Carolina in 1987 and has worked for the county since then. She spent nine years with the community services department and six more with parks and recreation before Pittman hired her as his strategic planner in 2002.
She became the chief deputy clerk two years ago and has taken on a bigger role as Pittman's health has declined of late.
In O'Neil's tenure with the clerk's office, the wait in line to pay a traffic ticket at the West Pasco Judicial Center has gone from more than 20 minutes down to about five, and court dockets have become accessible online to the public. The Pasco clerk's office is one of only four in the state to accept electronic court filings.
O'Neil says that if she gets elected she will continue working toward a "paperless" court system.
Altman pledges that he, too, would make the office more productive and efficient. He knows the office, he says, because of his 27 years as a lawyer at his family's New Port Richey firm.
He grew up in west Pasco and went to Stetson University College of Law in St. Petersburg. He has been active in community organizations like the Seven Springs Rotary Club, the First Baptist Church of New Port Richey and the Community Foundation of Pasco. He once was the chairman of the Odessa Rodeo and Festival.
Altman ran for clerk four years ago and lost to Pittman by a 2-1 ratio.
Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6244.