Gunning for Garrett: Two challengers vie for 8-year, $112K job
City School Board member and assistant public defender Llezelle Dugger will run for Charlottesville Circuit Court clerk, the second Democrat to challenge incumbent Paul Garrett, who's held the clerk job for 30 years.
"About three years ago, I started to seriously think about it," says Dugger. "I talked to Mr. Garrett and asked if he planned to retire. He said no."
Seeking his fourth eight-year term, the 65-year-old Garrett has been contested before, but Dugger may be the first challenger to talk candidly about alleged problems with his office. As a defense attorney, Dugger says she's grown frustrated by allegedly slow paperwork-processing.
"We're still waiting for final sentencing orders from 2010 and some from 2009," says Dugger, noting that it's not just a matter of convenience. For criminals facing sentences over a year in length, those orders are necessary to move from the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail to state prisons.
"What is the cost to us as a city to house folks?" asks Dugger.
In 2007, Garrett came under fire when a woman was kept in prison for a month because the paperwork that would have freed her was misplaced. That incident was followed by an emergency hearing for a man who spent a couple of extra days in jail because of a clerical error.
Public Defender Jim Hingeley has made no secret of his desire to oust Garrett, and he thinks the Democratic Party's upcoming "firehouse primary" may serve as a key factor to wrest the Democratic nomination– which is almost always the harbinger of the general election– away from Garrett.
"In the past, it's been a caucus," says Hingeley. "You had to stay for the whole meeting and have to cast the vote in public. Everyone had to be in a room with a locked door. It took hours."
With the firehouse primary, Dems have all day to come by and quickly vote in private, just as in a general election.
Dugger believes her legal background and her passion for organization combine for a valuable skill set, and she says that customer service and online records access will be key areas for improvement. And her boss Hingeley says it would be a great convenience to access court records online.
"A very, very small number of circuit courts don't have their records online," says Hingeley. "Albemarle does. Is there any reason we can't? Paul Garrett is the reason."
Asked for comments, Garrett declines to discuss his opponents or the firehouse primary, but he does offer a reason why Charlottesville Circuit Court records haven't gotten online.
"There are legal issues about confidentiality and privacy," says Garrett, mentioning juvenile court records, which the law usually requires to remain confidential. "That's a legal problem for which I am liable."
"Anything that happens in open court is public record," Dugger counters, adding that the number of juvenile cases that come to Circuit Court are limited, and that there are other documents, such as pre-sentencing reports, which are sealed and not put online.
Also not online are Charlottesville's real estate records. Garrett says his office is working to put 40 years of records online that would be available to a subscriber base. In 2007, according to the Daily Progress, Garrett told the state that the records already were online, when they were not. Albemarle put its land records online in 2008.
Pam Melampy, a deputy clerk in Albemarle Circuit Court, was the first Democrat to challenge Garrett. The sister of county clerk Debbie Shipp, Melampy says her 22 years of clerking experience–- 17 in Albemarle and six in Charlottesville General District Court–- are more important skills than being an attorney. And while Melampy hasn't been active in the city Democratic Party until recently, she's confident she can get out the vote.
The August 20 firehouse primary at Jackson Burley Middle School will be only the second time city Dems have used that method. The first time, in 2009, saw City Councilor Julian Taliaferro ousted in his bid for renomination. This year's will be the first firehouse primary for the clerk of court, a constitutional office. Candidates for three open seats on City Council also will be picked.
"The City Council race is throwing a wild card into the constitutional office race," says city Democratic co-chair Tom Vandever. While calling Garrett a "strong candidate who's generated two opponents," Vandever notes, "No incumbent has a guaranteed seat for life."