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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.