If you’ve ever bought a house, received a traffic ticket, gotten married or sued someone in Florida, there’s a record of it in the county clerk’s office. Its functions are often taken for granted, but perhaps no other government agency touches so many aspects of people’s lives.
First elected Pinellas County clerk of court in 2004 (and unopposed this year), Ken Burke heads an office that has won national acclaim for customer service but — like so many other organizations — has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Much of the office’s funding comes from traffic fines and filing fees, both of which have dropped dramatically since life slowed to a crawl in March. The result has been a 25 percent cutback in office staff.
Meanwhile, social distancing requirements have forced physical changes in courthouses and new procedures for jury selection.
Burke, a certified public accountant, recently spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about how his office has managed during the pandemic and how it’s gearing up for an "avalanche'' of work once trials resume and moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures end. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Criminal trials are due to start in October and civil trials in November. What will be different if you’re summoned for jury duty?
You’re supposed to fill out an online questionnaire with more detailed questions (than before), like will the financial impact of COVID distract you from being a juror? The idea is to have people not show up who really won’t be asked to serve.
We’re going to bring a maximum of 35 people in for jury service (in civil cases), usually it’s like 100 people. Criminal is pretty much the same, we’re bringing 45 or 60 and only some can go up to the courtroom for voir dire. The idea is to only have people in there who potentially have the qualifications and capacity to serve. We don’t want people we know will be excused.
Elevators have signs that only four people can go up at one time and they have spacing decals on the floor. Also, they’ll be required to wear a mask and get a temperature check on the forehead. Before they come in, we send out the same things you see everywhere ― don’t come in if you have a temperature, if you feel sick let us know and we’ll postpone your service. (Those who are pregnant, over 70 or caring for an elderly person can be automatically excused, and anyone can delay service for up to six months without giving a reason.)
Though filings in general have declined for obvious reasons, has anything surprised you?
We had a record week recently with 112 domestic violation injunctions, it was double the normal pre-COVID amount. Usually it’s like 50 a week. I think maybe it was because of the start of school, the pressure with that contributed to the increase.
Because of the virus, evictions are way down and foreclosures are way down compared to pre-COVID. As soon as the governor lifts the moratoriums, there’s going to be an avalanche of filings. That’s why it’s important that we have the employees to handle that. Right now we’re not way behind in work because filings are down so much and trials are not happening but that’s all fixing to start up again.
Your office launched a revamped web site in August. Talk about that a bit.
We try our best to drive people to our web site by making things available online. When I first became clerk, there were no court images online. If you saw a file, you could see there was a judgment filed but you couldn’t see it. Now you can. In our recording department we have records going back to 1950; before they only went back into the 80s.
Traffic court resumed just last week. Those are held through Zoom and there were problems so we had a lot of folks calling us. We set those up and try to make them work. The intent is to make as many remote things happen as possible.
One of the services court clerks can perform is conducting marriage ceremonies. Has the pandemic halted that?
We stopped for only two or three weeks out of deference to our employees — that was early on when there were so many safety concerns — but people were getting a little frustrated. A lot of those marriage ceremonies have to take place for insurance reasons. Say someone is sick and you want to make sure the person you’re living with is part of your insurance policy. There are some requirements for CARES funding (federal pandemic financial aid) that may involve marital status. And when schools go back, the right to pick up a child at school may involve a marriage.
Also, I feel that because someone is hoping to get married, since they’re here, why not try to help them out. If they bring too many people we say, "go out to the courtyard!''
A few years ago, your office started a fraud prevention service whereby people can sign up to be notified if deeds or other records are filed in their name. Has that been popular?
Last year we partnered with the property appraiser when TRIM notices went out and we got about 6,000 to sign up. It’s a wonderful thing for citizens. We probably have around 20,000 altogether.
Referring to the fact that part of your budget comes from traffic fines, you say on your website that "the funding model for Clerks' offices is broken.'' Why is that?
The funding model which (the Legislature) set up is all based on traffic citations. When they first set up this model in the early 2000s, if you went through a toll without paying, you received a traffic citation. There was a tremendous amount of violations that turned into traffic citations that turned into revenue (for the clerks). But then they turned to bill by mail. That’s a better way — I can’t argue with public policy — but citations went down.
Traffic citations also have been going down since the big financial crisis of 2008 when law enforcement got cut and the first thing they did was stop writing as many tickets. Traffic citations statewide are down tremendously and with the pandemic it really went down, from an average of 2,000 a week in Pinellas to a low of 450 citations during the height of the pandemic. That’s revenue that just magically disappeared.
What’s the solution?
The logical answer is that the general revenue of the state should fund the court system. But there is such a reluctance among the Legislature to give up any general revenue so we either have to identify another pot of money or have fee paying that is more consistent. Fees pretty well pay for the civil side. The problem is the criminal side. There’s no money in a first-degree murder trial that takes us years and years of work.
Do you expect any change in funding?
State general revenue is down for this coming year so that’s not going to be a solution. Fixing clerks' budgets is not a sexy issue. They only care about us when they need our services.