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Clearer standards would help clerks

Greenville, SC

More oversight and standardized procedures would help clerks of courts better serve state residents and could help prevent a recurrence of recent events in Spartanburg County in which Clerk of Court Marcus Kitchens is accused of taking drugs from an evidence room and conspiring to sell them.

The clerk of court plays a major role in the criminal justice system. The office’s duties include handling evidence, helping pick juries, collecting fines and distributing child support payments. However, not every clerk of court office is run the same way. That in itself is a problem.

Offices like the one in Greenville County operate efficiently and leave little room for the sort of malfeasance that has allegedly occurred in Spartanburg County. Others operate less efficiently whether because of tight budgets, the inexperience of those elected to serve or for other reasons.

All new clerks are given a state manual on how to perform their duties. However, Greenville County Clerk of Court Paul Wickensimer said in an interview that there’s little in the manual about handling evidence. The State Law Enforcement Division offers guidelines for evidence handling, but clerks are not required to follow them and not all clerks do, he said.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal is taking the prudent step of beginning to develop standards for inventorying, auditing and cross-checking evidence rooms. A good step would be to require all clerks to adopt SLED guidelines for handling evidence.

In addition, the state Clerks of Court and Registers of Deeds Association is working to ensure every clerk understands the gravity of the job and ways they can ensure their offices are being as responsible and accountable as possible.

The association meets twice a year and is planning training for its upcoming meeting that will address some of the issues that came up in the Spartanburg County case, Wickensimer said.

Such training is beneficial and should be mandatory for all clerks of court.

Finally, the voters have the final say. If a clerk — or any elected official — is not living up to expectations, it’s up to voters to send the right message by voting him or her out of office. Clerk of court is an important fiduciary position and should be taken seriously. Voters should ensure the people they elect are trustworthy and qualified to administer a large staff within an essential office.

Certainly there are serious questions to answer about any increased state scrutiny over a locally elected office. South Carolina already is in a difficult financial position, so adding responsibilities to any agency to more closely scrutinize elected officials would be costly and difficult. Already, clerks of courts are subject to various audits that track their performance; and they’re responsible to county councils for funding and, again, to the voters. All that said, it’s difficult to argue against another layer of oversight if it’s meaningful and the state can find a way to pay for it.

Short of that, the best way for taxpayers to have confidence in their clerks of court is for there to be clear standards, and support from the state and other clerks in understanding those standards. An informed electorate also is essential to ensuring adequate oversight.

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