Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Friday, March 6, 2009
Bill eliminates court clerks' judicial functions

The Monroe County clerk of court fears proposed legislation eventually will eliminate his constitutional office, which audits county government spending and oversees the collection of court-related revenue.

Two state bills, a House proposal and Senate companion, would strip Danny Kolhage and Florida's 66 other court clerks of their responsibility to collect fines and fees, which they then turn over to court administrators and judges.

Kolhage said eliminating the middle man will give the impression of "cash register justice," as judges would set and collect the money that funds their and their staffs' salaries.

"The provisions of House Bill 1121 will, in addition to eliminating the role of elected clerk of the courts, transfer hundreds of millions of dollars directly to the State Courts Trust Fund," Kolhage stated. "I believe that would be totally inappropriate and not be in the best interest of the public to place judges in the position of setting fines and costs, being responsible for the collection and accounting for those funds, with the full understanding that the budget for their office including their salaries of their staff is dependent upon revenue generated by those fines, fees and costs."

Kolhage also questions why the Legislature will decide the issue, and not the voters through a constitutional amendment.

"The biggest objection I have with this effort is that the court is asking the Legislature to amend the constitution by a legislative act," Kolhage said. "If the court believes that the structure of the state court system as described in the state constitution should be changed, they should propose an appropriate constitutional amendment to be put before the voters of Florida."

Sponsored by Fort Lauderdale Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, the House bill filed on Feb. 24 calls for a complete transfer of responsibilities throughout the entire state within four years. Port St. Lucie Sen. Ken Pruitt filed the Senate companion bill on Feb. 25.

Monroe County would be one of the first counties to begin the transition and could see a shifting of power within months if the legislation is passed this session. It was unclear why Monroe, which is the smallest circuit district in the state, would lead the transition.

The legislation would save money and end duplication of services, according to Bogdanoff's legislative aide, Aaron Nevins. The current system is not efficient, Nevins said, citing an example from two judicial circuits in North Florida, where nine different clerks of court use nine separate computer systems. In more rural areas, judicial circuits encompass several counties.

There also have been concerns raised about equity in pay and raises, as some clerk of court employees work for the state and some work for the counties. Depending on the budget year, state employees have received raises when county employees have not, and vice versa, Nevins said.

In Monroe County, Kolhage's employees have not received raises in two years because of lean county coffers, he said.

Kolhage and his office regularly audits projects and reviews contracts and county services to make sure they are being implemented in the most efficient way, such as the Key West International Airport terminal and parking garage construction.

Kolhage has earned the respect of the County Commission and the community for his heavy scrutiny of every dollar the county spends. He also contends the two bills "would eliminate a vital part of a system of checks and balances on the court system by eliminating the position of the elected clerk and transferring its duties and reproducibilities to appointed bureaucrats in the Office of the State Courts Administrator," Kolhage wrote.

Monroe County Court Ad-ministrator Holly Elomina and Chief Judge Luis Garcia plan to discuss the legislation with county and circuit judges in meetings today, Elomina said. She reserved comment until the judges review the proposal.

Garcia and the other 19 chief judges of Florida circuit courts support the legislation, she said.

tohara@keysnews.com

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