By Kendra Hennis
In a special four-part section, I will be interviewing all of the candidate hopefuls vying for the office of Circuit Clerk. To ensure complete fairness, all of the same questions were asked to the candidates before any interviews were released and I have given their exact responses on the matter. Please enjoy and don’t forget to vote on March 17.
Where are you from?
“I was raised out of foster care here in Illinois, I bounced back between Champaign County and Iriqous County. I now live on a farm in Newman.”
What is your current occupation?
“I currently work for the guardian ad litem for Champaign County, so I keep court records for them and I work in our docket data entry system for that county as well. The GAL serves DCFS wards in the foster care system and presents to a judge what their best interest in their DCFS family cases.”
What is your educational background?
“I have a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and a Master’s degree in Psychology. These have allowed me to land positions within our current court system in Champaign County.”
What do you know about the court system?
“Narrowing it down to specifically this office, we know the job of the Circuit Clerk is to connect the public with the judicial system, that is the whole point of the Circuit Clerk. So, the Circuit Clerk’s office keeps all of the public records and documents, that is a wide range between small claims, criminal, and family.”
What do you understand to be the duties of the Circuit Clerk’s office?
“Keeping all of the court’s records and documents. They also handle child support. Keeping all of the docket data entries have to be one hundred percent correct, there is zero room for error, I already have experience with this in the court systems. I already keep thousands of court documents on a regular daily basis. Also budgeting money, I have experience with from working with not-for-profit agencies.”
Do you have any experience that relates to the office of Circuit Clerk?
“I also have grant writing experience, and what I love about that and how I have been able to use that, and how I’m hoping to use that in the future. I was able to sit down with Julie Mills in her office and meet and talk with her in the other ladies in the office and asked what they needed in the office. What I learned is that the office is really understaffed and there needs to be more staff, but it is not in the budget. Which means, to fully staff that office we need to find money somewhere else, which is something I’m relatively good at. So, I’m hoping to use my grant writing skills to build a budget and find the grants that are appropriate for this office and use it to build the budget and the staff so that we can operate effectively. So that we can then communicate with the public the way that we need to and make sure our systems are public-friendly and such. We don’t want to use loans because we have to pay those back, loans are bad, we don’t want that. But the women in there right now are so dedicated, kind and caring, and they’re not taking vacations and struggle with sick days because they’re leaving a large load for someone else to do. So building that staff is something that has to happen, and if it’s not in the budget we need to find a grant for it. Also, Julie wants to stay on the staff part-time after she retires and I think she should absolutely do that. That would be the best thing for this office and whoever is coming into it. It is such a stress relief for her, she can share her knowledge and what she knows, and then she can come in and do her work and go home. I think that she would truly enjoy that, and I know if I was elected I would truly enjoy having her with me.”
Why did you decide to run for this position?
“I decided to run for it because I knew I had the skills, education and background. I also have a strong professional support system to where if I would get stuck I have people to lean on that are currently in the court system and even in the Circuit Clerk’s office in another county that can help put me in the right place. I also love where I live. I moved out here six years ago and I love living in Douglas County, and it would be wonderful to live and work in the same place. Andy, my partner, was born and raised in Villa Grove, so this is all he knows. But for me being a transplant, I have been so welcomed here and my kids have been so welcomed here. I have made such wonderful friends and I just love it and the people. All these small towns are just so amazing and quaint. I love the town festivals. I love how they keep traditions alive here and I think that needs to continue, and I think it would be really special to be a part of that and bring it into the court house.”
Why do you feel that you’re best suited for this position?
“I feel that I am best suited for this position because I am the only candidate who is currently employed through the courts. I am the only candidate who has worked on the backside of the court system, as far as record keeping, filing motions, and knowing what those papers need to say and where they need to go.”
What changes would you make to the office?
“To be honest with you, it would be hard to know what changes truly need to be made until you get in there. The only thing on the top of my mind, which may make some people squirm, and some people really happy, and would be a more long-term project, is that there does need to be an online payment system for fees, fines, and citations. I am saying that because the job of the Circuit Clerk is to connect the judicial system with the public and we have a disconnect as far as how many people in our county has an hourly paid job that has to leave their job and go to the court and pay their bill. But, if they could hop on their phones and pay it online, that’s totally different. Or, when you think about the population served, if I have a warrant out for my arrest, I am not going to come into the courthouse and pay my fine because I am afraid I am going to get picked up. There are automation grants out there, I know, I’ve done my research. The state of Illinois has released four hundred billion dollars worth of grants after the first of the year and we need to get in on that. That is something that needs to happen, but that doesn’t mean that our entire system needs to change. I know people squirm at change and it makes them nervous. But there is good change. We are a small county and we depend on that money and getting that money back, so if we use an automation grant to update our system, or find a system that can link to what we already have then we’re getting those funds back and saving ourselves time sending out those pesky notices that no one wants to get in the mail anyway. We have to work smarter, not harder. Which means, we as the public need to elect someone in this office that can do that for us.”
Do you think that technology will play a big part in the Circuit Clerk’s office moving forward?
“Technology is ever-evolving. It is going to have to move forward at some point, maybe its baby-steps, I don’t think its anything we need to submerge ourselves in right away. I do know that the JAM system that they work out of now they are really happy with, which is why I hope that we can connect online payments to what we already have. But, it is evolving, and we are going to have to catch up at some point, or at least make moves where we are getting our money back. That is the ultimate goal here, we need money to survive but we don’t want to affect the public by raising fines and fees, so we need to make sure we’re putting ourselves in the position where everyone is happy. And it’s doable, we just need to work smarter.”
How do you define public service and how will it play a role if you are elected as Circuit Clerk?
“I’ve been in public service for a long time now. I am a cheer coach at St Thomas and volunteer at Champaign County CASA. Public service for me does not stop when you get the office, and you don’t just sit behind a desk. You are out in the community and serving in your schools and churches. You are doing the most good where you can, when you can, and with who you can.”
Are there any special skills you possess that separate you from the other candidates?
“I think that my overall background. I believe I am the only candidate with a Master’s degree. In my opinion, if you are willing to put the work in for your education, then you are probably willing to put in the work in other places in your life as well. For me, my education as allowed me to obtain positions that are court involved and related, and have put me in the position of working with judges and attorneys on a daily basis. As well as working with clients and the communities. I have been a social worker for a number of years, so working with members of the public on a daily basis is something I have done for a long time, and caring about those people. When you have someone walk into your office from off the street, they should leave feeling like this is resolved. When they walk in there they should be greeted with a “how can I help you”, it should be a pleasant experience, and if it’s not, how can we make it a little more pleasant for them.”
Is there anything else you would like added?
“This has been so eye-opening. There are four of us running on the same ticket in a small county. This has been super fun. I’ve gotten to know one of the candidates really well, Nathan Burton, and we have been able to become kind of friends and cheer each other on. I just said, you know man; if I have to run a race with someone I’m so glad it’s with you. It’s made me grow, and isn’t that the point of life, to grow. In my job and life, I’ve met a lot of young people with bad lives and I want to show them that their life is important. It doesn’t matter where you come from, God gave you a voice, use it. Make your unobtainable goals obtainable. You can run for office. You can get a Master’s degree. Put in the work. My campaign has really been dual-purposed to give kids like me hope that they can reach for something like this for them.”