Rocket Man

By: 
Aug. 24, 2012

For months, supporters of Charlie Green have urged him to be more aggressive.

Some believe that the Lee County Clerk of Court should adopt a more confrontational role with the county commission over how it spends taxpayer money. After all, the clerk is the constitutional officer charged with the responsibility of auditing the county's finances.

Green hasn't shied away from doing his job, and he's sniffed out his share of financial shenanigans over the years. In a series of four audit reports recently, Green highlighted how Lee County overpaid for conservation land at the depth of the real estate collapse. The audits contributed to the electoral defeat of one of the longest-serving county commissioners in the Aug. 14 primary election, Ray Judah.

But he's resisted responding publicly to personal attacks from politicians who challenged his findings and questioned his personal motives.

Green remembers his father, a commercial fisherman, telling him one day: If you back a man up in a corner in a fight, kill him or give him a way out. “He was a pretty wise guy,” Green says smiling.

For the record, Green's strategy is to show a man the way out. “Buy in with us and make this thing work,” he says.

Making things work has been a hallmark of Green's 28-year administration of the Lee County court, and the recent foreclosure crisis was the biggest test of that.

As thousands of foreclosures threatened to flood Lee County's court system in 2008 and 2009, Green created a system dubbed the “rocket docket” that helped judges speed through thousands of cases. Green and the rocket docket were featured in a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal in early 2009, complete with a dot-ink portrait of the clerk.

Speed was of the essence, of course, as bottlenecks in the foreclosure process only delayed the area's economic recovery. Without the rocket docket, it's certain that Lee County's real estate recovery wouldn't be close to where it is today. The percentage of home sales involving foreclosures is now less than half of the total monthly sales of existing single-family homes. Meanwhile, prices have been rising at a 30% annual clip in recent months, according to the local Realtor association.

But Green, the father of two 15-year-old twins, says he's ready to retire after 28 years on the job. “If I stay here I'll be angry and bitter,” he says. “I probably shouldn't have stayed here 20 years.”

Green seems ambivalent about his future endeavors. “I have no idea,” he says. (He's married to Katherine Green, formerly the president and CEO of developer Bonita Bay Group and now chief executive of Habitat for Humanity of Lee County.)

When pressed, he says he plans to devote time to the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps steer donations to needy groups. “It's a much better way to do things than government doling it out,” he says. “I might go into marketing or sales,” he adds. And this tantalizing bit: “I'm not done with politics.”

Digging on Mound Key
Green, 65, is a fiscal conservative with a libertarian bent.

He grew up in Fort Myers Beach, home of the county's fishing fleet. As a child, he spent days fishing and digging for Indian artifacts. “We all dug around the shell mounds, it was fabulous,” he says, remembering how he stashed Calusa pottery shards in his pillowcase.

Now, he laments, preservationists won't let anyone dig for historical treasure. “They don't let you get close to it,” he says.

A history buff, Green says European historical sites, such as the ones he visited in Italy, recently encourage visitors to explore the sites. Lee County should open its archeological sites to the public so people can learn about their past, he contends.

He has similar libertarian views on the issue of decriminalizing drugs, which clog up the courts with sick people suffering from substance-abuse problems. Instead of locking them up, Green says we should help substance abusers overcome their disease.

Like many libertarians, Green is a fiscal conservative who watches county spending carefully. For example, recent audits uncovered $40,000 was missing from the Sanibel causeway tolls, and tourism funds were being diverted for political lobbying. “It's not your money,” he reminds politicians.

But the toll money is small fry compared with the recent audit of county lands, which uncovered millions of dollars of questionable land buys when the market had collapsed. Personal attacks didn't bother him, he says. “I love that,” he smiles. “That tells me I'm right on target.”

Green says the root of the problem lies in the fact that Lee County built up huge reserves during the boom, and politicians didn't have the discipline to cut back during the bust. “We've had way too much money for a long time,” he says.

While Green will tell you what he thinks about an issue (and he may do so with salty language that does justice to his commercial-fishing heritage), he doesn't see his job as telling others how to govern. “We have no authority; all I have is the light,” he says. “The clerk is not a bully pulpit.”

For example, he says a blue-ribbon committee appointed by county commissioners is examining how the county spends money to buy conservation land, a positive result from his audits. Rather than attack the land-buying program directly, Green says he prefers to help others discover the truth for themselves. “You can't burn all your bridges,” he says. “It's not a battle you win today.”

Green says he's optimistic that fiscal changes he's recommended will be one day be implemented. “Eventually things work their way out,” he says. “I embrace humanity with great warmth.”

Technology edge
This non-confrontational style helped Green manage the affairs of the courthouse for nearly three decades. Getting judges to agree to the rocket docket and new technology took some diplomatic finesse, for example.

After graduating from the University of Florida in 1970 with a degree in advertising, Green ran a title and abstract company in Fort Myers before becoming clerk in 1984. “In the early '80s, nothing was happening here,” Green recalls. “But I could feel the change. You could see technology was coming.”

At the time, the clerk's computers were so fragile that one terminal going bad could destroy data throughout the system. Clerks maintained handwritten ledgers as backups.

Green made a big push into technology, hiring software programmers to write code. “We wrote the first child-support program,” Green says. Green's successor, Linda Doggett, started working there as a computer programmer soon after he took office in 1984.

More recently, to save money on office space, Green armed employees with laptops and sent them home, an unusual move for a government agency. Software allowed him to keep tabs on employees remotely, ensuring they remained productive.

Without technology, the clerk's office would never have been able to keep up with the population and land-transaction booms of subsequent decades, not to mention the foreclosure explosion that followed.

At its worst in 2008, the Lee County Clerk's office processed about 2,400 foreclosure cases a month and the backlog was 25,000 cases. Today, Green says his office is processing about 500 to 600 foreclosure cases a month with 7,500-case backlog. “I think things are getting a little better,” he says.

Green vacates the office at midnight Jan. 7.

Behind the scenes
Linda Doggett has worked with Charlie Green for almost as long as the Lee County Clerk has been in office, but rarely in the public limelight.

Endorsed by Green, Doggett handily won election to the post by a wide margin on Aug. 14 and will head a staff of 340 people that ensures smooth courthouse operations.

If anyone knows the court system intimately, it's Doggett. She started as a computer programmer in 1984 and rose to the position of director of information technology and now chief operating officer.

A self-styled geek, Doggett says her strength is analysis and operations. She's responsible for the court's transition from paper to digital records, which helped the court successfully manage the foreclosure onslaught of recent years.

While Doggett's strength is the behind-the-scenes operations, she acknowledges that her role as the county's internal auditor will be challenging because of its high profile. “It is my biggest growing opportunity,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “I'm more analytic, detailed. Charlie's the big-picture guy,” she says.

Doggett plans to institute a risk-analysis computer program that will flag county departments for audits. “It takes the politics out of the process,” she says. The program will rate risks on factors such as large budgets and excessive overtime.

Like Green, Doggett doesn't see her role as a champion of any particular political agenda. But that doesn't mean she'll order fewer audits. “I feel very strongly about the auditing function,” she says. “I'm not backing down for a valid audit.”

Doggett acknowledges that her job may be easier because of recent changes to the makeup of the Lee County commission. She says new commissioners may be more receptive to suggestions for improvement.

On the foreclosure front, Doggett says she believes the real estate market is improving. “It's definitely on the incline, but not very steep,” she says. “It's going to take some time.”