Getting it done in the circuit clerk's office
By By William F. West / community editor
Sept. 16, 2002
Lauderdale County Circuit Clerk Donna Jill Johnson looked ahead to the upcoming November election, and talked about her work philosophy during a meeting last week with The Meridian Star's editorial board.
Johnson and nine deputy circuit clerks work with Lauderdale County Circuit Court and Lauderdale County Court, as well as Lauderdale County Youth Court. The circuit clerk's office facilitates systems for judges, the district attorney's office, lawyers and jurors and helps process the county's election results.
The Meridian Star: What preparations have you made for the coming elections?
Donna Jill Johnson: We're very fortunate in Lauderdale County because the election commissioners are in charge of the general election. And we're fortunate in the sense that we do have five election commissioners that work.
Some counties, unfortunately, don't have that and it's their legal obligation. They're the ones in charge of hiring the poll workers and getting ballots printed and they do a great job.
Ann Watts is the election commissioner and chairperson and she's got lots of experience through many years of working on special task forces through the attorney general's office and the secretary of state's office.
We're blessed to have Ann. She inherited four new election commissioners a few years ago, and she's done a good job in training them.
The Star: What difficulties or problems do you anticipate in the elections?
Johnson: We don't anticipate any problems. The poll workers get trained and they do a good job. Most of the time, it's the same poll workers that work through the primary elections.
The Democrats and the Republicans hire the poll workers during primaries, but I'd say probably 85 percent of the poll workers work again during the general election, so they're well trained. And, by law, they have to go to school. Ann keeps them updated on the laws.
The Star: What changes or improvements have you made to the circuit clerk's office?
Johnson: We're constantly looking to upgrade our equipment, based on the law, and we computerize as much as we can. Of course, in budget times and tight money, it's like a Santa Claus list. We do try to prioritize.
People don't realize that we have four departments that come through the circuit clerk's office. The first floor is what the public is mostly exposed to through voter rolls, elections, marriage licenses, judgment rolls.
The second floor is our criminal court section, through Judge Robert Bailey and Judge Larry Roberts.
The majority of that is criminal trials, but large civil cases that are above $75,000 go through Circuit Court. We have three (deputy clerks) up there that do an outstanding job.
The third floor is County Court. That's Judge Frank Coleman and Judge Coleman wears two hats. We have two deputies to help him. Those are lawsuits below $75,000 and all garnishments go through there. They have to have a middle man, and we happen to be the middle man.
And the fourth department that comes under our umbrella that people don't realize is out at the juvenile center, where Judge Coleman is the juvenile center judge on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
I think everybody realizes the heavy case load, with the problems with juvenile crimes that are happening all over. I have two deputies out there.
I have a total of nine deputy clerks two on the first floor, three on the second, two on the third and two out at the juvenile center.
The Star: In addition to elections and courts, what other duties and services do you perform? Do people come to you with questions, problems, concerns, wanting to know about the working of county government or seeking your advice?
Johnson: We like to feel that when people come into the circuit clerk's office even if we're not the correct department that we try to help find who they need to go to and direct them.
And all of our nine deputies feel the same way that we want the people to feel like they've been helped and they're pointed in the right direction.
I think every department, especially on the first floor, feels like they're an information center anyway because people are looking for car tags, where to go to pay taxes, where to go to file for homestead exemption.
But I think this comes from some of my old days at the telephone company, and this is in comparison to the way I feel now about being circuit clerk, is that I feel like it's the old telephone company that hired me back in 1964 that you try to help somebody.
If you can't help them, you find somebody that can, but you let them leave happy.