Ellis looking to make changes at Recorders Court

Ellis looking to make changes at Recorders Court

The DeKalb Recorders Court is in line for a major shake up following the recent grand jury investigation that found a crisis of leadership, lack of accountability and pervasive staffing and physical problems at the court.

CEO Burrell Ellis said his administration is already making changes at the court that processes more than 230,000 traffic and misdemeanor citations a year and that he will install new leadership when Chief Judge R. Joy Walker’s current four-year term ends on Dec. 31.

“I agree with the grand jury that we need new leadership at the court,” he said Tuesday.

But on other issues pertaining to technology improvements, and renovations and expansion of the court, he said he did not want to be pinned down now about what might or might not be include in his proposed 2010 budget.

“We are considering all options at this point,” he said.

Ellis said that he and the Board of Commissioners will work collaboratively to address the concerns raised in the grand jury report and that Public Safety director William Miller is already at work clarifying the management and leadership issues raised by the grand jury.

DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who chairs the BOC’s Public Safety Committee, said she is anticipating a complete overhaul of the Recorder’s Court and is now scouring the grand jury’s recommendations to come up with policies that will eliminate the Court’s problems.

“We are going one by one at these recommendations,” she said. “At this point, it is still a work in progress. It is not a fast process.”

Barnes Sutton, who represents District 4, said many of the grand jury’s recommendations will require expenditures at a time when the county is cutting back in the face of declining revenues, but that changes at the Court has to be a top priority.

“It is something that has to be addressed,” she said. “We have to make it work.”

The court, which collects fines for traffic and code violations, projects revenues of $21.4 million in 2009. But Barnes Sutton cautions that while it is tempting to view Recorder’s Court as a revenue source, that it is court of law.

“We can’t look at every ticket as revenue,” she said.

If the Court is operating properly, the District Four Commissioner said the county will have a more realistic expectation of its operations.

The grand jury investigation came in the wake of recent indictments of three former Recorders Court employees for a ticket-fixing scam while they worked at the court; a study that found an estimated $20 million in uncollected revenue since 2000, and chronic long lines, crowded and cramped conditions at the court on Camp Circle in Decatur.

It found widespread breakdown in the court’s operations and identified a failure to address ticket fixing inside the court, exercise due diligence, adequately account for funds, follow the law and properly assess fines and enforce warrants.

Walker, who has been the chief judge since 2002 declined to speak about the report.

“Unfortunately, I am forbidden by the current administration from making any statements to the press,” she said in an e-mail.

Even though Ellis said Walker was mistaken about being forbidden to speak to a reporter, he did not give her permission to speak.

Instead in an Oct. 21 email, his communication director Shelia Trapier Edwards said that Ellis is preparing responses to the issues raised by the grand jury report.

“He wanted me to remind you that prior to issuing their report, the grand jury interviewed Judge Walker and the information obtained from her was utilized in drafting their report,” she said.

Ellis promised to provide a copy of his responses once it has been submitted to the grand jury.

Competency of leadership

In its report to DeKalb Superior Court judges at the end of its term in August, the grand jury said the Recorder’s Court’s “dysfunctional organization” precluded it from being able “to clearly fix accountability and responsibility.”

It said the employer-employee relationship between Walker and Clerk of Court Joyce Head makes it impossible “to determine where the Clerk of Court’s role and duties begin and end versus that of the Chief Judge.”

It pointed out that the current relationship between the two officials, who are both appointed by the Board of Commissioners on the CEO’s recommendations, violates DeKalb County Code, which sets the chief judge’s primary duty as the oversight of the adjudication process, and requires the clerk to keep all records of the Court, collect all costs, fines and forfeitures and remit the same within 72 hours to county’s director of finance.

“We are unable to conclude why the Clerk’s duties and responsibilities had become a part of the Chief Judge’s overall duties,” it said.

The grand jury identified the following factors it said have given rise to how important it will be address the “competency of leadership and management at the court”:

Series of failures

– Failure to address ticket fixing inside the Recorder’s Court:

The grand jury said the testimony of the Chief Judge and the Clerk provided no assurances that there had been any policy, procedural or security measures taken by the Court after the indictment of some employees for “ticket fixing.”

“The Chief Judge indicated that she had not contacted anyone concerning the matter and that no one had contacted her,” the report said. “Clearly no ‘check and balance’ system was in place at the time of the alleged criminal actions, and frankly, the grand jury finds it deleterious for the head of Recorder’s Court to fail to take any initiative, action or corrective step once her former employees were implicated.

“These corrective actions should also have included a means to better supervise probation collections to make sure no wrongdoing occurs at that point in the process.”

– Failure to exercise due dilgence:

“We are unable to understand why the Chief Judge would dismiss more than 11,000 warrants of probationers solel;y upon the recommendation of JCS probation service therby resulting in a loss of revenue (fees and fines) to the County estimated to be $2.7 million.

– Failure to adequately account for funds:

The investigation found undeposited checks amounting to more than $3.5 million that were held Recorder’s Court for more than 16 months.

“When we posed questions to the Clerk of Court as to the reasons why probation checks that were received from the previous probation company were held and not deposited, her response was they were held so the checks could be reconciled to the indvidual probationer’s file.

“However, this same documentation indicated that less than 10 percent of the probation activities were properly posted to individual defendant’s cases.

– Failure to follow the law and properly assess fines/fees:

The grand jury found that the Court was not collecting from defendants and depositing the correct fees in the Sheriff’s Retirement Fund, despite a 2004 change in the law that increased the amount from $1 to $2. It said that Recorder’s Court was still only submitting $1 to the fund despite the training the Clerk received. It also said that the monies being paid into the fund were coming from other sources, but not actually being assessed to the individual defendants resulting in loss to the county.

“We are unable to estimate how much DeKalb may owe this fund or why the delay in paying $2 into the fund,” it said.

– Technology, technology, technology:

The grand jury said the Court’s existing SAS computer system produced unreliable data but it was unable to determine if the unreliable data is due to lack of training of staff or if the system lacks the capacity to handle the volume of information. It said the fact that a former clerk from a county with similar caseload as DeKalb Recorder’s Court praised the SAS system, leads it to think the problem in DeKalb may be untrained or improperly trained staff and not the system.

– Failure to appear in court and warrants enforcement

The grand jury called for improvements for these functions of the court. It asked for a letter to be developed and mailed to any citizen who fails to appear and or pay their fines to the court. It said the the letter should inform the citizen that a warrant may be issued or their driver’s license may be suspended if the matter is not resolved. It said the Chief Judge said such a letter was tried as pilot program and resulted in 20 percent return.

“The grand jury is of the opinion that 20 percent is far better than zero percent and would encourage the Court to reconsider its refusal to institute this program.”

– Physical structure:

The Grant Jury recommends refurbishment of the current courthouse and that a fourth courtroom be acquired and staffed so that all full-time judges have a courtroom.

“There is need for considerable cleaning and painting of the facility,” it said.

– Inadequate oversight by internal audit

The grand jury said that audits of the Recorder’s Court in 2005, 2006 and 2007 by the DeKalb County Internal Audit Division were insufficient and had allowed the problems at the court to exacerbate.

“We recommend future audits be far more comprehensive and thorough.”

Noting that it had spent considerable time reviewing Recorder’s Court, the grand jury said it would be greatly disappointed “to see our work end up in a file drawer gathering dust.”

“As importantly, Recorder’s Court requires the attention of the CEO and the County Commission,” it said.

Posted by Heneghan on 2009-10-26 05:15:55

Tagged: , DeKalb Recorder’s Court , CEO Burrell Ellis , Chief Judge R. Joy Walker