‘Storage stalemate’: Circuit clerks say space is a problem - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

‘Storage stalemate’: Circuit clerks say space is a problem

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Kanawha County circuit clerk Cathy Gatson said the courthouse is quickly running out of space for record storage. Kanawha County circuit clerk Cathy Gatson said the courthouse is quickly running out of space for record storage.
Pendleton County circuit clerk Shalee Dunkle Wilburn said space also is a problem in her county. Pendleton County circuit clerk Shalee Dunkle Wilburn said space also is a problem in her county.

Shalee Dunkle Wilburn has been Pendleton County's circuit clerk for the past 20 years, saying she loves the small-town vibe and the lack of crime.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, Wood County Circuit Clerk Carole Jones recalls coming to work at the office in 1968 and says every year, she sees more and more people at the front counter.   

In the capital city, Kanawha County Circuit Clerk Cathy Gatson said the county sees 10,000 new cases a year and caseload keeps increasing.

So what do these three circuit clerks have in common?

No matter the size of the county or caseload, these circuit clerks all experience one consistent problem — there's just not enough space.

 

Pendleton County

 

In her 20-year courthouse career, Dunkle Wilburn said her favorite thing about her job is that she learns something new every day.

She also loves her home in the Eastern Panhandle.  

"I was born and raised here," she said of her Pendleton County home. "I don't know what it's like to be anywhere else. I've been other places … but I'm always glad to come back."

Dunkle Wilburn remembered her first day in the circuit clerk's office.

 "When I was first here, everything was handwritten in docket books," she recalled, noting how much has changed since the courthouse's 1992 renovation including the switch from a county jail to a regional jail. 

"That was bad for us because we're an hour and 45 minutes away," she said. "It's over three hours where an officer is tied up to take a prisoner up there. … We couldn't afford to keep the jail open because of liability issues."

Before the renovations, Dunkle Wilburn said the courthouse's record room was in the back corner of the courtroom.

 "We couldn't work on court days because it was too noisy," she recalled. "When you would pull a book off the shelf, it was too loud of a commotion."

Then, the circuit clerk received a bigger office. However, one problem remained.  

 "I thought we would never outgrow the space, but you quickly do," she said.

Dunkle Wilburn said 2012 was a busier year for Pendleton County, with approximately 22 criminal cases, 39 civil cases, 46 child support/divorce cases and 12 juvenile cases.

 "It's been a bit of an increase with 22 criminal cases. It was six last year," she said.

Yet, even with a low crime rate and a smaller caseload, space is a problem.

 "We would love to build an annex but can't afford it at this point in time," she said.

Each year, she said, the circuit clerk's office adds another file cabinet. Now, there is just no place to store any more files, she said.

‘We're just out of room," she said. "We took the old (files) to the basement. There are some in the law library. There's just no place to store anymore. We're hoping new shelving will try to do that."

Scanning and converting to a digital format will help with space, she said, but the Pendleton County circuit clerk's office has not yet started that process.

"It's always a scary thought what happened in Morgan County," she said referring to the 2006 fire that damaged the building. "That was terrible. I talked to the girl at the clerk's meeting and said I just had no idea where to begin. I hope it never happens here."

 

Wood County

 

Space also is a problem in Wood County.

Carole Jones, Wood County's circuit clerk, recalled several changes since she started working in the circuit clerk's office. She remembered when Wood County only had one circuit judge and one intermediate judge, who handled juvenile cases.

And since her first day in office, workload has dramatically increased. A big part of that increase, she said, is the addition of the family court.

As an example, she explained there are many different record and order books. These books typically have between 600-700 pages.

 "We fill one of those up in 10 days," she said.

Wood County recently saw the completion of a new justice center. The circuit clerk's office did not move into the new building but instead moved into the sheriff's building. Although they had a bit more room to store files, the office does not have room to grow, she said.

"Space has always been an issue," she said.

Jones said she would like to see the office start scanning court documents. Although she said she doesn't think it will resolve the issue immediately, she said it will help down to the road.

Jones' office has 12 full-time deputies and three part-time.

"I fell that I could use more," she said.

"Our counter also is extremely busy," she later added. "There is someone at the counter almost all the time. When they're doing those things, they're not at the desk working on summons and copies and everything that needs to go out.

She said at least once a day, a member of her staff must go to the building where records are stored.

"If we have them scanned, we will not have to make that trip," she said.

 

Kanawha County

 

Cathy Gatson works in one of the busiest circuit clerk offices in the state, with 10,000 new cases filed every year, approximately 30-50 jury trials in the last two years and a budget of more than $2 million.

Gatson said one of the greatest challenges facing Kanawha County comes from family court because it comes with many pro se litigants in which people act as their own attorneys.

With funding cut to Legal Aid of West Virginia and an increasing demand for help, these litigants seek advice in many ways.

 "We try to address that with facilitated use of forms, pro se clinics and things like that to address that need and void," she said. "What we've seen is that there's a dramatic increase in the number of pro se cases for domestic relations."

And like the other two counties, Kanawha also has a problem with storage.

But grappling with record retention isn't just a problem in West Virginia — it is a problem all across the nation, Gatson said.

 "There's a tremendous interest and demand for court records," she said. "But in some instances, there is limited funding for how those records are made accessible, how they are disposed or how they are retained. Everyone is trying to grapple with that right now. The state Supreme Court is looking at various ways to address that, both at the magistrate and circuit court level."

In the past, Gatson said, the office scanned only domestic orders. Recently, the office started scanning all civil complaints, answers, orders, criminal indictments, capias orders, certified commitments and other documents in criminal cases.

 "We still have a lot of cases stored off site," she said. "We have three off-site storage units along with on-site filing and open shelf filing."

Files stored off site include categories or files that are not requested often. The only problem, she said, is if a lawyer wants to see that file, they must travel sometimes across town to get the document.

"We definitely need another floor," she added. "I like to think that's something we're trying to do by scanning. Hopefully, the laws and other rules and requirements will catch up and move forward so we can get out of that … storage stalemate."

 

 

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