By Gus Cross
Serving as Rockbridge County’s Clerk of Court for 39 years, Bruce Patterson has seen vast changes in his work.
“The biggest change is technology,” Patterson said. “When I first started, we didn’t even have electric typewriters in the office.” Since then, his office has seen the introduction of word processors, computers and digital scanners.
Rapidly changing technology is just one of the challenges that will soon fall upon a new clerk of court. Following Patterson’s retirement at the end of September, Rockbridge County is holding a special election on Nov. 7 to fill his position. Running for the position is Democrat Dennis Ayers, Independent Michelle Moore Trout and Independent David Whitesell.
In addition to transitioning toward technological advances, the next clerk of court will have other challenges. One is the rapidly increasing number of criminal cases in Rockbridge County. In the past three years, the number of cases has nearly doubled from 800 cases to about 1,500 cases last year. Patterson said that another large challenge is handling the regulatory changes every year that have increased the number of reports his office has to fill out.
With these issues facing the candidates up for election, each has his or her own plan for the future of the office of clerk of court.
Ayers worked for 10 years at a legal publisher where he helped migrate clients’ print libraries online. For the past two years, he has worked as a paralegal for the Rockbridge Commonwealth Attorney’s Office. He said he wants to work on making more functions of the clerk’s office accessible online.
“My background would make it easier to focus on technology, to focus on a robust website that provides materials that users need so that they don’t necessarily have to make a visit to the courthouse,” said Ayers. This will include digital imaging for existing records and online access to court documents.
Trout has been working as the Chief Deputy Clerk of the Buena Vista Circuit Court for the last 16 years. Before that she worked for several years as a deputy clerk in the Rockbridge County Circuit Court.
“I would like to bring credit and debit as a form of payment to the office,” said Trout. Currently, the only way to pay fines and fees is to pay with cash or check in the court clerk’s office. The addition of credit and debit payments would allow for quicker transactions.
In addition to the new payment options, Trout said she would like to incorporate a new case imaging system that was recently launched by the Supreme Court of Virginia. The system is currently in use at the Buena Vista Circuit Court office. According to Trout, the system allows judges and attorneys to view files digitally without having to come to the circuit court office and pulling the physical file. The ability to pull up the appropriate files on a computer would save the time of traveling from to the clerk’s office and save money spent on making copies.
Whitesell is in the middle of his fourth term as the Rockbridge County Commissioner of Revenue. Before that, he worked for 10 years as a deputy sheriff in the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office and then for eight years as a deputy clerk for the Rockbridge County Circuit Court. Whitesell said he hopes to keep the office running as well as it has been under Patterson.
“I can’t see that anything needs to be changed from what [Patterson] has done, other than to keep things headed in the direction of technology as much as possible,” Whitesell said. “Of course some of those changes requires additional manpower and that is something the state is limited in giving local offices.”
He said that the most important thing is to continue the quality of service Rockbridge has seen under Patterson’s office.
Despite the different ideas the candidates have for the clerk of court office, if elected, they all agree the rising number of cases coming through the office will be one of the biggest challenges in the immediate future. In addition to the rising number of cases, Patterson believes one of the big challenges will be the eventual transition to a paperless office.
“The Supreme Court of Virginia is eventually going to require that,” said Patterson. “They don’t want this [folder of case papers], they want to be able to pull it up on the computer and not have to pass the file back and forth.”
Currently only Ayers is planning to actively move the office towards a paperless office. Trout said she is on the fence about going paperless because she “likes that hard copy to be able to hold and look at.” Trout also said she is not opposed to the idea but she does not want to attempt something this major for at least four years. Whitesell is also not opposed to going paperless in the courthouse, but he stresses not overworking the current staff in order to do so.
While the job will present many challenges to the candidate elected to the position, the reward is high. According to the most recent Rockbridge County Budget, the salary for the clerk of court is $116,852 for the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Regardless of the salary, Patterson is confident that whoever is elected will be capable of handling the job.
“This is not brain surgery,” he said. “It is just a lot of stuff that goes through this office and you have to learn a whole lot of things and it takes a long time to do that.”
Patterson’s last day in his position will be Sept. 29. Senior Deputy Clerk Brenda Anderson will temporarily fill in the position until the candidate elected officially begins. The new candidate elected will begin once the State Board of Elections certifies the election, which Patterson believes will be around Thanksgiving.