Hillsborough Clerk of Court Pat Frank is quickly reorganizing the 850-member office.
By David R. Corder
Pat Frank heard a curious report in the days following her swearing-in ceremony in January as Hillsborough County clerk of court. Some judges told her repeat traffic offenders would appear in court, but there was no record of prior convictions.
"You had individuals with suspended licenses or DUI convictions and (we had) no record of that," she says.
Frank says concern for public safety quickly trumped her strategic plan to reorganize the clerk's operation. She directed senior management to investigate.
They discovered the problem. The state's Traffic Citation Accounting Transmission System (TCATS) had returned to the Hillsborough clerk's traffic department about 31,000 traffic citations containing 41,000 errors. Over at least the past year, those error-laden returns accumulated untouched under a desk.
"There was a stack 3 feet high," Frank says.
Frank's response came swiftly. Two long-time managers resigned: Linda Stanley, chief deputy of court operations; and Rebecca Piskura, the traffic department director. She assigned the clerk's auditing department to assess the problem and recruited five former traffic department managers from other departments to assist with the recovery effort.
Then Frank and her staff met with all 90 workers in the traffic department in groups of five, partly because of her concern about morale in light of the resignations. She explained the problem, talked about the strategy to fix it and efforts to prevent it from happening again.
The response to the problem explains a lot about how Frank intends to run the clerk's office, says Clay Phillips, an attorney-lobbyist who Frank hired as her chief deputy in charge of special operations
"It's really a good case study on how she attacks problems," he says. "She uses the tools to go in there to figure out not only what happened but how to fix it."
The reaction is a positive indicator, says Hillsborough Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. Although he was aware of his judges' suspicions, he was unaware of the magnitude of the problem.
It's uncertain whether Richard Ake, Frank's predecessor, even knew about it. She says he didn't mention it to the transition team.
"There's always going to be a problem somewhere in an organization as large as this," Menendez says. "Obviously it could impact public safety, and everything has been done to correct what has occurred."
That's a sentiment shared by Roger Alderman, executive director of the Florida Association of Court Clerks. The association manages TCATS through a contract with the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
"The (TCATS) program administrator confirmed that based on their audit reports the county is making good progress toward resolving the error issue," Alderman says.
Already Menendez has met with Frank and her staff several times to talk about issues that mutually affect each of them. All indicators tell him Frank has a good plan for enhancing the foundation that Ake built prior to his retirement last month.
"I'm optimistic we're going to have a very good relationship with the clerk's office," Menendez says. "We enjoyed that in the past and hope to continue that. Secondly, I'm looking for, perhaps, getting a little deeper into the electronic age, electronic filing and imaging, things of that nature. And we're moving in that direction. Talking to her, I can tell she wants to continue that."
While evaluating the clerk's operation, Frank came to one conclusion: She disliked its centralized characteristics and thought it discouraged interdepartmental communications.
"The organization was very vertical but many of the responsibilities run horizontally," she says.
Frank wants to create a new way of thinking throughout the organization. Decentralization should reduce interdepartmental bureaucracy.
To execute this plan, Frank relies on a handpicked senior management team. First, she retained Dan Pohto as chief deputy in charge of the audit division. Then she recruited Harry Cohen, a trusted adviser who now serves as senior deputy clerk in charge of administration. When Stanley resigned, Frank also delegated court administration duties to Cohen, a former associate of Barry Cohen at Tampa's Cohen Jayson & Foster PA. The Cohens are not related.
This senior level management team also includes legal counsel Dale Bohner, former Tampa Port Authority general counsel; financial advisor Anthony Sanchez, a certified public accountant and her campaign treasurer; and Phillips, who handles legislative lobbying duties in addition to special projects such as overseeing the transition inventory of criminal and civil court evidence.
"These are all young people, too," Frank says. "Dale is the oldest of the group, but they all bring fresh faces and ideas."
The appointments came at a critical time, Frank says. Several of her key chief deputies are near mandatory retirement because they participate in the county's Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP), a program that allows eligible workers to earn interest on deferred retirement benefits. Those chief deputies include Jim Jennings, finance; Jack Etheredge, technology services; Sue Parrish, Board of County Commissioner services; and Roger Garner, a director in charge of financial operations and budgeting.
To round out her team, Frank also recruited Stanley Gray to create a new human resources department for the clerk's 850 employees. He had worked in similar positions for corporations such as Coors and Revlon.
One characteristic of Frank's management staff underscores an important priority in her strategic reorganization plan. She wants more minority representation at the senior staff level. Minorities now account for more than 30% of the nine senior level staff positions. Besides Parrish, Sanchez is Hispanic and Gray is black.
To bolster her diversification plan, Frank also abolished the clerk's promotion board. Under the old system, she says, only a few senior level clerks approved promotions. Now she relies on a volunteer board of 17 to 20 employees. That should foster more diversification at the supervisory levels because most of the middle level managers are female, Frank says.
"That's not decisions that should be made by top management," she says. "It should be made by the managers who supervise these individuals. They should be given the latitude to select the people who do the jobs."
The changes taking place are fairly fluid, Frank says. For instance, the senior management team and the chief deputies met on Feb. 14 to make specific recommendations on how to reorganize the office.
"It will take a little time to put it together," Frank says.
One thing is certain, however. Frank expressed a strong desire to achieve the highest level of customer service through the latest available technology. But that requires money, which poses something of a problem for her.
Despite its $52 million operating budget, the office faces a projected revenue shortfall of about $250,000 for fiscal 2005-06. That's because of caps the state Legislature enacted last year as part of the implementation of Revision 7 to Article V of the state Constitution. Revision 7 transferred funding of the state courts and clerks to the state from Florida's 67 counties.
This year the Legislature will allocate money based on projected revenue for fiscal 2005-06, Franks says. That's a problem for her because of the projected $250,000 shortfall in revenue.
"Our percentage of increase in funding from the state is based on the shortfall," she says. "So the base is important to us."
How she will resolve this problem remains unanswered. She has some options, however.
For one, she is trying to forge an alliance with other clerk of the courts who face similar revenue deficits. A concerted lobby might be one way to persuade the legislative leadership that the shortfall is a problem that needs fixing.
On other hand, Frank says the solution may be in collections. She is exploring opportunities to collect unpaid fees, fines and costs as one way to reduce the funding deficit. She wants the Legislature to amend the law that prevents clerks of courts from assessing a surcharge on collections. That's not really fair, she says, considering the clerks' private collection agencies aren't held to that standard.
Frank has talked with Harvey Ruvin, the Miami-Dade County clerk of the court, about the surcharge restrictions. She thinks he may be willing to join a coalition to seek the law's repeal.
"I spoke to Harvey about that, and he said he wouldn't have any problem in supporting an amendment to that effect," she says. "He said it was Richard Ake's sense that he didn't want to be known as a collector.
"I said, 'The reality is today you have to be if you're going to survive,' " she adds. "So I would like to collect as much money as I can."