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February 16, 2013

Court Clerk’s office consolidates district; circuit staff

CULLMAN — The Cullman County circuit clerk’s office is now under one roof.

Well, it’s always been under one roof. But now, all the services that fall under the oversight of circuit clerk Lisa McSwain are, for the first time, consolidated in one place.

Whether it’s passport applications, child support payments, paying felony or misdemeanor court costs, or any of the many other functions requiring contact with the circuit clerk’s office, there’s now a single location to begin the process: the walk-up window of the clerk’s office, located on the third floor of the Cullman County courthouse.

In her first month on the job, McSwain moved all of her office’s staff and services to the third floor, ending a decades-long division that had kept district court clerk employees on the building’s second floor, on the opposite end of the building from the rest of the third-floor circuit court clerk staff.

The move has several benefits, said McSwain. For residents, the biggest of those is convenience in accessing the services her office provides.

“People who come into the courthouse on a judicial matter don’t always know exactly where everything is located, or where they need to go,” she said. “That’s understandable, because our offices have always been so spread out, and many people don’t necessarily understand the division between ‘district’ and ‘circuit’ and how those services have been separated in the courthouse for so long.

“When we had the opportunity to put everything in one place, that’s what we did. I believe it will make things much more convenient for residents who need to visit the clerk’s office, no matter what the reason may be. As long as people come to the third floor and speak to someone at our service window, they will be pointed in the right direction.”

The service window has always been there, but it hadn’t been staffed with anyone to greet the public. McSwain has placed two staff members’ stations at the window counter, to ensure there’s always someone present to meet and direct visitors.

Moving the district clerk offices upstairs required more third-floor space than had been available — until recently. Working with the Cullman County Commission, McSwain reconfigured the nearby offices of presiding Circuit Judge Greg Nicholas, after he moved his work area closer to the main courtroom. A wall separating Nicholas’ former office from the existing clerk’s office came down, nearly doubling the amount of contiguous work space the clerk’s office could occupy.

Across the hallway, McSwain cleared several file storage rooms of their contents, freeing up additional space that has since been converted into meeting rooms for attorneys, clients and witnesses. New soundproofed walls (for privacy) were constructed in the old file storage space. Two truckloads’ worth of old paper files, no longer needed after being scanned into an electronic database, were hauled away and securely discarded.

A week into the new arrangement, employees say they welcome the change.

“I love it,” said deputy clerk Susan Richardson. “Actually, I was telling Lisa that this is something that needed to have been done for years. The way this has been set up, we now have our civil and domestic division together; we now have all the bookkeepers together; we have district and circuit criminal staff together — it’s beautiful. With the [former] split between district and circuit staff, there were two of everything; now everyone can pull together and learn more about how the person sitting next to them does their job, which is becoming increasingly important.”

District court specialist Amber Mardis agreed that working upstairs alongside her colleagues will increase efficiency and streamline office services.

“I am very happy with it,” said Mardis. “With everybody here together, it makes it a lot easier for us to help each other out. It’s great to have everybody nearby, where nobody feels like they’re out of the loop on what’s going on in the rest of the office.”

According to McSwain, the consolidation will encourage employee cross-training, a benefit that should help her office run more efficiently. With a 15-employee staff that promises only to shrink, through attrition, in the face of state budget cuts that have decimated judicial support services, McSwain said the need for employees who know how to wear many hats has never been more important.

And, she added, attorneys with cases before both district and circuit courts should find the move more convenient.

“We used to have boxes for attorneys downstairs in district, and another set of boxes upstairs for circuit, and they would always have to come check both of them. This eliminates that,” she said.

* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at bbullard@cullmantimes.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.

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