As has been the case throughout this week’s Candidates’ Forum sponsored daily by the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce, the candidates for probate judge Wednesday saved their best for last.

During closing remarks, Republican nominee Bridgette Little Reeling stressed her legal and managerial skills as a legal assistant and office manager would be an asset to the office of probate judge, while Democrat nominee Leah Patterson-Lust stressed that her real life experiences as a medical social worker make her uniquely qualified for the position.

“We are electing a judge, a judge that presides and rules over cases such as eminent domain, conservatorships, guardianships, adoptions and commitments. The probate judge is also over elections. Why do you not want to elect someone that has some type of experience with the legal system relative to this office,” Reeling said. “Judgments are rendered by that judge and for judgments to withstand scrutiny under appeal they must be supported by the law. Therefore, knowledge of the law is a benefit.”

Reeling pledged to use the experience she has gained in the field to benefit the probate judge’s office and the citizens of Cullman County.

“When you interview for a job you are expected to bring a relative experience to the floor and I bring that,” Reeling said. “I ask for a chance. Let me show you I am honest, hard working, determined, compassionate and passionate about doing this job.”

Lust began her closing remarks noting that her opponent has indicated that being elected to the office of probate judge is about experience, “and I want you to know I agree with her 100 percent. So, let’s talk experience.

“After obtaining my bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work from the University of Alabama in 1995, I began working in the field of medical social work. I am a human service professional. I didn’t become interested in serving other people just for the purpose of this campaign,” Lust said. “I didn’t draw close to me the idea of compassion, integrity, service to others and Christianity (a reference to an earlier comment made by Reeling in which she stated she was a Christian), just for the purpose of this campaign. Those have been goals and things that are just a part of my being and who I am.”

“My education, my experience is directly related to the task of probate judge,” Lust said. “As director of social work (at Cullman Regional Medical Center) I’ve had many opportunities to help people while they experience the most difficult things in their life. I too am organized and efficient. I too work hard every day, and I too will do a great job as probate judge.”

Cheryl Conover, past chairman of the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce, served as moderator for Wednesday’s forum coordinated by the chamber’s Governmental Affairs Committee and sponsored on this day by the Cullman Business and Professional Women.

The week-long series at the All Steak Restaurant continues today at 11:30 a.m. with the candidates for associate county commissioner. Friday’s forum will feature local legislative candidates (three House races and one Senate race).

Wednesday’s spotlight was arguably on the most hotly contested local race on the Nov. 7 ballot.

An issue during the campaign, questions regarding staffing in the probate judge’s office solicited some of the most anticipated responses from the candidates, particularly when they were asked if they intend to retain the current staff members, several of whom were in attendance.

“Absolutely. I would want to work with everyone of the employees currently there and during this campaign I have never made any comment that gave any indication that I planned to change anyone’s position in the probate office,” Lust said. “I feel the staffing can be increased slightly and would need to be increased if we added another annex. I am committed to having those satellite offices manned.”

Reeling said she too plans to retain the office’s current employees, despite certain rumors to the contrary.

“I have always said that is what I intend on doing. I know, at times, I have heard rumors and people have asked me if I was going to retain all of the employees and that has never been a problem with me. I believe the employees in that office do a great professional job so it would be my intention that they stay,” Reeling said. “As far as staffing and increasing the staff, the county commission has said there was room for one more part-time staff, however, instead of hiring that part-time person the money could be used to help with cross training the employees at the satellite offices working in conjunction with the revenue commissioner’s office.”

Both candidates said they would like to streamline services being provided in the probate judge’s office in the courthouse, and both said they favor adding services at the annex offices in Dodge City and Baileyton. Lust, however, questioned whether cross training could be accomplished given certain restrictions that now exist.

“Individuals who work in the revenue commissioner’s office and even the revenue commissioner herself, is not a licensing agent,” Lust said. “That is something that would have to be approved by the state for one of those employees to actually act as someone who grants business licenses, fishing licenses and things such as that, so we would need to get state approval to do that.”

Reeling said she believes cross training can be accomplished if conducted in conjunction with the revenue commissioner’s office and that would also help alleviate some of the spacing issues confronting the office.

“Things such as cross training assure space utilization so we provide top-notch customer service,” Reeling said. “There is no reason a government office cannot run like a business and be professional and efficient in every thing they do.”

Both candidate said they planned to look into the possibility of relocating the driver’s license machine in the probate judge’s office as a means of shorting some of the long lines that plague the office from time to time. They also agreed on the possibility of installing a drivers license machine in the annex offices if the funds can be found to do so.

The candidates also agreed that computer interfacing between offices is something that could benefit both the probate judge’s and revenue commissioner’s office.

Reeling would also like to see implementation of an E-Filing system, which would provide convenient access to probate files by the public and attorneys. Lust countered that E-Filing, like the type available in the district and circuit courts, aren’t currently available for probate offices.

“E-Filing is a system that comes under the Administrative Office of Courts. All of the other courts are part of the unified judicial system — the probate court is not,” Lust said. “A different system would have to be configured for that purpose and possibly would have to come through state approval so all probate offices were using the same thing.”

On the subject of changes within the office if elected, Lust said she is planning no major changes.

“I’ve spoken with the revenue commissioner’s office and will be looking to partner with them to hopefully open another satellite office, hopefully on the west side of the county just to split the services up,” Lust said. “The one major change I would implement is I would personally be the one responsible for all guardianships, conservatorships and commitment issues. If anyone needed a hold order, they would call and speak directly to me. I am on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That would not be anything that is new for me.”

Reeling said as good a job as the probate judge’s office does now there is always room for improvement.

“As with any office, as times change and evolve we have to evolve with those changes,” Reeling said. “As far as E-Filing, there are ways of getting that implemented whether it’s through a new computer system, but there are ways of doing that in that it is already being implemented in the district and circuit courts.”

Asked what they hope to accomplish as probate judge, Reeling said she has several ideas she would like to implement, but she pledged first to work hard every day for the citizens of Cullman County.

“I would learn everything that I can about that office that I may not already know. I would implement any and all automation that would be available to assist and benefit the citizens of Cullman County and progress the office,” Reeling said. “I would work to increase the use of the satellite offices and make an attempt to decrease the lines in the driver’s license department. I would provide compassionate, unbiased and top-notched customer service. I’m also the type of person who never takes no for an answer. If you come into the office and need to know something, I’ll always try to find an answer.”

Lust said while on the campaign trail she has heard many of the concerns people have about the probate judge’s office.

“I’ve been asked about the satellite offices. I plan to keep those offices fully staffed. People need to be able to go to these offices and have the same services provided to them that would be provided at the courthouse,” Lust said. “It would be my hope that I could enter the office of probate judge with some new ideas. I would look toward streamlining all of the processes, all of the services and see how we can make them more customer friendly. My door will remain open. Anything presented to me, I would do everything I could to solve those problems.”

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