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Spokane County clerks candidates differ on experience, goals for reform

Spokane County Clerk Tim Fitzgerald, a Republican, and Michael Kirk, the Democratic candidate for county clerk in the November 2018 election. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Two candidates for county clerk, incumbent Tim Fitzgerald and challenger Michael Kirk, aim to improve efficiency and technology within the office to better serve the public.

But the Republican Fitzgerald and his Democratic opponent Kirk disagree on whether the county clerk’s duties should include social reform.

Kirk said if elected, he would focus, in part, on reform, including adjusting some court fees to remove financial barriers for people and improve online access to court documents.

“It’s something that we already have the technology available to do. That would save people with limited means a fair amount of trouble and resources,” he said. “Parking downtown, well, it costs. Time to get off of work and get down to a place, it costs. For some people, those costs are a much higher percentage of what they bring home. So, I think that’s something that’s important to address.”

Fitzgerald said social reform should be a duty for legislators, not the county clerk, whose primary task is to act as executor of the law.

“I don’t make the law and I don’t rule on the law, I simply just execute the law as it’s written,” he said. “The key thing is to do it in a fair and balanced manner. We serve all the constituents of Spokane County.”

The county clerk’s office is responsible for maintaining Superior Court records, managing legal documents, issuing warrants and handling financial transactions for eight case types as well as juvenile court.

Fitzgerald, a retired colonel from the U.S. Marine Corps, said his more than 30 years of military leadership, background in organizational management and belief in public service make him the best candidate for county clerk.

“I really enjoy the office. We’ve built a great team and we are getting a lot of good stuff done on behalf of the community, constituents of the county and our taxpayers,” he said. “We’ve come a long way and I’m very excited about that. I want to finish up what I started.”

Fitzgerald touted efforts made during his first term of office such as establishing electronic forms, automating the phone system and implementing a new court computer system, Odyssey, which goes live Nov. 5 and replaces a more than 40-year-old system. He said he also has worked with advocate groups on the Legal Financial Obligation program to stop arresting offenders if they fail to make restitution payments.

“I will continue making modernization efforts with the implementation of Odyssey and then I want to do e-filing. I think that’s really important,” he said.

Fitzgerald’s challenger, Kirk, was raised in South Carolina and spent more than 15 years working in youth and family ministry before relocating to Spokane three years ago. He said he’s running because service is “central to my identity as far as what I want to do with this life – to serve other people and do the best I can to make the world better than I found it.”

Kirk said the clerk’s office is the backbone of the legal system and is a position that requires a great deal of attention and care.

“That’s very much the way in which I was trained – that administration and people are worthy of our utmost care and that administration and advocacy go hand-in-hand when it comes to making a difference,” he said.

Kirk said because the county clerk has a permanent seat on the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, that provides an opportunity to improve access to the legal system and work on criminal justice reform.

“As I see it, every elected official is a representative of the people,” he said. “And if they see there’s a way in which the people are not being served well by the system that has been set up, then yes, it’s incumbent upon them to work with people within the county government and without if necessary.”

While there’s been extensive turnover in the clerk’s office due to retirements, promotions to higher paying county jobs or other reasons, both candidates advocate for salary increases to retain employees, which they say can be achieved by streamlining the office.

“A salary increase would be a great benefit for folks in the office,” Fitzgerald said. “That would help retain them.”

Fitzgerald said when the county notified the clerk’s office of a 7 percent budget cut for this year, he made it a priority to retain all employees by restructuring a supervisory position and changing procedures.

“Our cuts were incredibly minimal in the clerk’s office,” he said. “Not a single person got a pink slip.”

Kirk said, if elected, he would like to incorporate a team leader position in the clerk’s office and promote internal leadership development to fill positions as well as retain experienced employees. He said he would push county commissioners to boost funding to the office.

“We’ve had a long stretch of not rising up to meet the needs the county has. I would say that it’s important to advocate to the commissioners to do their duty as far as making sure we do increase that pile, to make sure we respond to the needs of the county,” he said. “In the case of the clerk’s office, it does mean more personnel. It does mean pay raises. It does mean investment in technology.”