Low profile, high impact

As elective positions go, it’s not very glamorous, and it’s rarely in the news. In fact, most people couldn’t even tell you what the clerk of superior court does, much less who’s seeking the office this year. But there may be no other race in the current election cycle whose winner will directly touch more lives in Buncombe County.

At any given time, the clerk of court wears four hats: judge, treasurer, archivist and administrator. The job covers everything from probating wills to ruling on adoptions, foreclosures, name changes and incompetency proceedings. Meanwhile, as the county’s chief fiduciary agent, the clerk collects fees, fines and forfeitures, disburses funds and invests millions of dollars of public money.

This versatile functionary also preserves trial evidence and the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents related to matters brought before the courts each year and — if that weren’t enough — maintains the county’s official records. (Some, in heavy leather binders, date back 100 years). All this while supervising a staff of nearly 70 people (political appointees who serve at the clerk’s pleasure) on 10 different floors of the Buncombe County Courthouse.

It’s a big job, and this year, two men want to do it. In January 2009, Democrat Steve Cogburn was appointed to serve out the last two years of Bob Christy’s term after the 18-year veteran retired. Republican John Sutton is challenging Cogburn.

Both are family men (Cogburn has three boys; Sutton has two young daughters). Both are lifelong county residents with deep roots (Sutton’s mother taught at Asheville High School, and Cogburn’s father was a local judge). And both candidates are attorneys, which isn’t generally true for clerks of court in this state. Cogburn practiced law for 25 years, and Sutton has for 10.

Neither has run for office before, though you’d never know it with Cogburn, who’s quick to flash a smile and does a mean Johnny Cash impersonation. Sutton seems somewhat more reticent, though he lights up when he talks about Widespread Panic, his favorite band.

Steve Cogburn

For Sutton, a key issue is ramping up the technology to help the operation run more efficiently. “It’s been a problem for some time as to how they keep up as the population grows,” he maintains. “We’re misplacing files up there; it’s kind of sluggish. … I think one rather simple solution would be to slap a bar code on every file. It wouldn’t be a major expense. That would be one way to better utilize technology so we can find out where our files are.”

Sutton sees this situation as a symptom of a bigger problem: “What we’ve done in Buncombe is business as usual, going along to get along, and what happens is that we’re not progressing. I think we can do better … in our delivery of justice.”

Cogburn, meanwhile, stresses his record: “My experience as clerk distinguishes me 100 percent,” he says. “From July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010 there were 71,787 matters opened in Buncombe County, so there’s a lot to do every day. And we disposed of nearly 100 percent of them, so we’ve been taking care of business. There’s been a charge of sluggishness, but I think the numbers belie that.”

Asked about his challenger, Cogburn pulls no punches: Sutton’s “lack of understanding is very apparent to those who listen to him,” the incumbent asserts.

North Carolina, Cogburn explains, now has a “unified court system,” meaning the structure in each of the 100 counties is almost identical, and operations are centralized in Raleigh. This setup, he maintains, limits any single county’s ability to innovate. The state, he says, is moving in the right direction, but it will take time. “My opponent wants to change the technology here; well, we can’t,” says Cogburn. “You can’t change the technology in just one county.”

One thing both candidates agree on is that once the election is over, partisan politics should have no place in either man’s performance as clerk.

Asked about adoptions by same-sex couples, for example (an issue that came before the N.C. Supreme Court recently), Sutton said: “I think the clerk of court’s role in an adoption would be to give everyone a fair access to the court system and its proceedings. … I don’t believe they should interject their personal views about homosexuality or religion or anything else. That should not affect their decision-making.”

Photos by Michael Muller

For more information on Cogburn, go to http://www.electstevecogburn.com. For Sutton, visit http://www.sutton4clerk.com.

— Michael Muller can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 154, or at mmuller@mountainx.com.


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12 thoughts on “Low profile, high impact

  1. UnaffiliatedVoter

    CHANGE is NEEDED down into the LOCAL levels too!

    Cogburn is an insider Buncombe democrat, the party that has just about bankrupted NC.

    Sutton represents new ideas and he likes Widespread Panic too!

    Sounds like Cogburn is hellbent on perpetuating a system put in place by RULING democrats who’ve dominated us for over 100 years in NC.

  2. UnaffiliatedVoter

    Cogburn is an oldline democrat insider. Lets move away from the ever oppressive NC democrat ‘leadership’ that has ENSLAVED us thru
    too much state control and HIGH taxations!
    Just dont vote for a democrat FOR A CHANGE!!!

  3. Sally Owen

    Mr. Cogburn’s statements, though creative, are completely inaccurate. While North Carolina does maintain a unified court system (General Court of Justice) in that it consists of an Appellate division and two trial divisions (Superior and District), the technological and organizational systems implemented in each county vary widely. Mr. Cogburn’s lack of understanding his own position is apparent to those who’ve spent any time in the Buncombe County Clerk’s office.

  4. riceakneko

    When people start throwing stones, usually it is because they are having to protect something profoundly fragile. The statement by Mr. Cogburn, that John Sutton has no experience is laughable. Does anyone remember the old adage; you need a car to get a job, and you need a job to have a car? Isn’t this the case with Mr. Cogburn? Someone gave him a job without a car (Roll of Clerk).

    By the way where are the checks and balances here? How does the general public know if Mr. Cogburn is doing a good job or not? Technology is interchangeable, as well as a step in the direction of accountability. Having a system in place that allows files to have more efficient and accurate tracking, would cut cost tremendously as well. Why would anyone want to object to more accountability and cutting costs in government?

    As far as the not wanting to break away from the way that Raleigh does things, what kind of statement is that? Lets break away from the constraints of bad politics for a second, and look at how newly adopted technology has enhanced accountability and efficiency. The Sex Offender Registry was at one point a newly adopted technology. If someone with a closed mind and political fears had been heading up that endeavor, where would law enforcement and the general public be today? Technology is a tool that is utilized in every other part of the justice system. It is being used in law schools around the country. So if it is so important to everyone else, why does Mr. Cogburn want to just follow. We are suppose to be electing a leader!

  5. Asheville native CPA

    I am a Democrat, however, Cogburn’s low level tactics have disgusted and tainted the party (i.e. actively tearing down Sutton signs and replacing with his own,negatively disparaging Sutton with comments such as above, etc.)
    Isn’t the Cogburn family, Steve included, owners of Bank of Asheville? (Or Westar Financial who owns Bank of Asheville) We have seen in the papers where that bank is ending up. That is not the management needed so this Democrat is voting for an R because a CHANGE is needed locally.

  6. John

    Wow. Cogburn sounds arrogant.

    Anybody in tune with technology who loves Widespread has got my vote. Hmmm… Looks like I’ll be voting for two R’s this time. A new record for me.

  7. Irienow

    The two times I’ve gone to the Clerk’s Office for assistance, they were very helpful and kind. Steve Cogburn has my vote!

  8. shadmarsh

    How many of the above comments are from BCGOP’s new “guerrilla marketing” scheme? Just curious, as several of them seem to be written by the same person.

  9. UnaffiliatedVoter

    WHY do democrats continue to feel superior and that THEY must control everything in NC?

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