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Challenger on crusade to unseat Pasco Clerk of Court

DADE CITY — Few officials feel the need to bring along a 500-sheet ream of paper to political forums. But Pasco County Clerk of Court Paula O'Neil does. She holds the box up to illustrate the enormity of public records requested by her opponent, Roberta Cutting, who has accused O'Neil of hiding information.

"This is 500 pages, and we need 239 of these reams of paper" to copy the records requested by Cutting, O'Neil said. "All of those items are in 602 different boxes, spread out through 44,000 cubic feet of storage."

Cutting, who was quoted a price of $22,000 to copy virtually all the clerk's financial records since 2008, has made that an issue in her campaign to unseat O'Neil. Cutting has made the campaign a personal crusade. She regularly accuses O'Neil and her staff of "corruption" but does not offer specifics.

"I don't want to pay $22,000 for records if I don't know what they are," Cutting said in a candidates' forum on Monday night. She was also offered the opportunity view the records but would have to pay $12.78 per hour for a staffer to supervise her. By law, clerks of courts are custodians of original records and have the right to charge people if requests take up excessive staff time.

"I have listened for a year to accusations against me, against my team at the clerk's office," O'Neil said calmly. "We stand by our integrity We serve hundreds of thousands of customers every year." She cited numerous awards the office has received from government and legal groups. "Your records are protected. Your money is protected. Your land records are protected, and your court records are protected."

Audience members, many of them wearing O'Neil's red campaign shirts, stood up and cheered.

Challenger alleges 'sabotage'

O'Neil, a Republican, won the office in 2008 after serving as second-in-command since 2002. When no one else challenged O'Neil's bid for a second term, Cutting filed the paperwork herself last October as a non-party candidate.

That was about two weeks after Cutting was terminated as a volunteer in the clerk's office. She had served there only a week.

"Paula O'Neil sabotaged my career," said Cutting, 53, who was a paralegal student at Pasco-Hernando Community College during her volunteer stint in the clerk's office. "This should have never come from an elected official that should be representing the people. That was a big motivator for me."

A year before her volunteer stint, Cutting had caused problems in the records department when she tried to view a confidential sexual assault case file and claimed to be the attorney of record, according to a memo from O'Neil's administrator, Kevin Fulford.

When employees failed to find her name listed, she told them she was in law school doing research. According to an employee, she accused an employee of being associated with the defendant and later claimed to be the victim in the case but was challenged when her age did not match. David Williams, who supervises the records department, told the Times on Tuesday that Cutting could have viewed the file after staffers redacted personal information that is confidential by law.

"She wasn't interested in that," he said.

When employees saw Cutting working as a volunteer a year later, they remembered the incident and notified the clerk's human resources department. O'Neil then authorized her staff to terminate Cutting if necessary. Fulford did.

Cutting denies she ever claimed to be an attorney.

She accuses O'Neil and her staff of trying to "ruin" her and says that's why she decided to challenge O'Neil for the job.

O'Neil told the Times that she had no reason to want to sabotage Cutting.

"I had never even met her," O'Neil said.

Incumbent touts experience

If elected, Cutting promises to treat all staff and customers with respect. She vowed to give up half the position's nearly $140,000 salary "back to the people" to "decide where to best use this money."

She said she plans to end "wasteful spending," citing $16,000 O'Neil spent changing the office seal and $27,000 spent on office furniture.

O'Neil, 56, who had said she preferred to run a positive campaign, cited her 15 years of experience in county government and six years as chief deputy clerk as proof she's the better qualified candidate. O'Neil, who holds a doctorate in applied management and decision sciences from Walden University, pointed to improvements in the clerk's website and the addition of online records. She also established a call center that fields 15,000 calls per month from people who have questions.

O'Neil has lined up the endorsements of a long list of attorneys and community groups, and amassed a $46,000 war chest. Cutting has raised about $1,000 for her campaign.

As for the seal, O'Neil said the county had three different versions and she unified those into one design, which was done by in-house employees. Furniture had to be bought to accommodate a new wing that was built at the West Pasco Courthouse. Outgoing clerk Jed Pittman left the money so the incoming clerk could select what worked best, she said.

She said the clerk's office has run smoothly despite state cutbacks that forced her and other clerks across the state to temporarily cut hours of service. Employees also have gone five years with no pay raises and have been forced to give 3 percent of their pay to the state retirement fund.

Despite that, O'Neil said, "we have continue to serve on a daily basis. My employees and team do this because they care about you."

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification: Roberta Cutting, a no-party candidate for Pasco County clerk of court, said she would give half her salary "back to the people" to "decide where to best use this money." The previous version of this article was not clear on how she planned to distribute the money.

Challenger on crusade to unseat Pasco Clerk of Court 10/09/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 11, 2012 5:56pm]
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