Most voters don’t thrill to developments in the clerk of court race. They don’t pay attention to which candidate spends more. Most of them, it’s probably safe to say, don’t care a whit about who occupies the office, so long as he or she is not an Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Don Yelton, the Republican challenger to the seat in next month’s election, thinks that’s a shame.
“It’s a powerful position,” says Yelton. “It’s a nondescript position, but the power is there. People need to pay attention to it.”
N.C. Institute of Government instructor Jim Drennan share’s Yelton’s appraisal. “It’s a very important function,” says Drennan. “The clerk has to make sure that the records are made and maintained carefully, and, in some cases, expunged. The clerk’s office also handles a tremendous amount of money, mostly cash. Clerks need to be really good managers, especially in a county as big as Buncombe.”
Yelton, a former environmental science professor at Brevard College, long-time cable-TV commentator and fly on the Buncombe County Commissioners’ ample flanks, thinks it’s time for a change on College Avenue.
“Talking to people around the county, it’s become obvious to me that the court system has a motivating factor,” he says. “The court system revolves around money. It thrives on the poor people who don’t have any knowledge of the system. The first thing they’re told when they get over there is ‘Get an attorney.’ Yet they pay for that office, don’t they? Should that office give legal advice? Probably not. But should that office be available to the citizens to the maximum? Yes, it should. You have to make judgment calls in a position like that. But they should be calls made on equity, on fairness to the people, rather than politics or political clout.”
The clerk of court’s role is three-fold: administrative, financial and judicial. Administratively-speaking, the job entails filing and keeping all the records of the court, sending judgments to the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) mainframe computer and getting case files into judge’s hands. Financially, it entails handling all the money paid into the county court system — fines, forfeitures and judgments in civil cases. But North Carolina stands alone in its third requirement, that clerks of court also be judges in probate cases (wills, estates, trusts and guardianships).
Yelton, 59, has all the marks of a political maverick. In 2000 and again in 2004, he ran unsuccessful bids for chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, and came away each time tasting bile. A lifelong Democrat, he switched party affiliation in 2004, after watching his fellow Dems demonstrate a lack of political will at their state convention.
His opponent in this year’s race, Democrat Bob Christy, has been Buncombe County clerk of Superior Court since 1990. In the past 16 years, Christy’s office has handled more than $275 million in fees and fines. Christy oversees a staff of 58 in the marble halls of the Buncombe County Building. His present candidacy has the widespread support of the county’s legal profession. His donor sheets read like a who’s who of local litigation and defense.
Nevertheless, Yelton thinks his opponent’s long tenure and apparent comfort in the role of clerk are reason enough to get rid of him. In the scant three weeks before election time, Yelton — on a shoestring budget amplified by his straight-talking style — is casting Christy as a political insider, a “good old boy,” a public servant who’s ignored his standing orders.
“What we have is a pay-to-play system. We have a pay-to-play system in Buncombe County, we have a pay-to-play system in Raleigh and — guess what? — we have a pay-to-play system in Washington, D.C. Well, I hate closed-door systems. I hate manipulation.”
If he wins, Yelton says he’ll push for additional night-court sessions to reduce crowding at the courthouse (currently Buncombe County, with two sessions a week, is the only county in the state with a night court). He says he’ll institute a credit-card-payment system for traffic tickets and other minor infractions. He says he’ll make sure that bankruptcies and foreclosures are routinely advertised in local media.
“Do you see that information advertised in Buncombe County? No, those things are not done.”
Yelton is fond of rhetorical questions. His stumping is peppered with them, mostly along the lines of, “Do you think that’s right?” and “Well, what do you think?” He is earthy and unpretentious. For a while last summer, he wore a nametag that read “DON YELTON, CANDIDATE FOR CLARK OF COURT.”
“Me and the lady over at Office Depot had a laugh about that one,” he says, loosing a hearty chuckle. He’s since replaced it with a tag that bears the correct title.
“I’m not an attorney,” Yelton says. “When I approach that job, I’ll approach it with an inquisitive mind, questioning everything. There’s two things I can promise people. Number one, I’m not for sale for any price. I’ve been told by political pundits, ‘Don’t say that,’ because there are some people who would like to buy that office. The other thing is, I’ll do what I think is right.”
And, in the other corner…
Ask Yelton’s opponent to name what’s wrong with the court system, and he blames Raleigh for much of the current situation. In 1990, Christy’s first year on the job, he says the legislature appropriated 3.2 percent of the state budget to the courts. Last year, he goes on to explain, that number hovered at just 2.1 percent.
“In real dollars, we’ve lost about a third of our funding over the years,” he says. What’s more, fines and fees collected by the courts do not go to fund the judicial branch. (About 80 percent of monies collected by the courts are returned to the state’s general fund.)
This loss of funds has coincided with a 100 percent rise in civil cases in Buncombe County over the same period. Criminal cases have edged even higher, to 120 percent over 1990 levels. Today, Christy’s office handles 75,000 cases per year — “anything from a traffic ticket to murder, from small claims to multi-million dollar medical malpractice suits.”
New infrastructure is on its way in the form of technological upgrades: The eCitation system, for instance, where officers can enter citations on their patrol-car laptop computers and, with a click, send them to the Administrative Office of the Courts mainframe in Raleigh. The next day, says Christy, the clerk’s assistants can simply hit “print” and get a pile of new citations, without the trouble of transcribing the information by hand.
And talk of a pay-by-plastic system is nothing new, insists Christy; similar to the eCitation system, it just hasn’t come to pass yet.
“We’ve been talking about that for 20 years now. The state hasn’t figured out how to deal with the service charge that the credit card companies charge.” Improvements to the system arrive at the state’s leisure, if at all, he says. “Right now, we’re just patching what we’ve got,” Christy adds.
Christy is a 1981 graduate of North Carolina Central law school. He practiced law for two years before being brought on as an assistant to then-clerk J. Ray Elingburg.
“When Ray retired, I ran,” he says.
During the most recent reporting period, Christy had $18,095 in direct campaign donations, compared to Yelton’s $1,885 in donor funds. Donors to both men’s campaigns are visible online at www.buncombecounty.org. Look down Christy’s list of contributors, and their stated occupations begin to read like a mantra: lawyer, lawyer, lawyer, lawyer.
But where Yelton smells favoritism, Christy sees a vote of confidence.
“I rule against lawyers all the time,” he says. “I think I’ve always been fair and up front.”
Civil attorney Joe McGuire of the Asheville firm McGuire, Wood & Bissette shares Christy’s self-estimation. “He’s been the clerk for a long time, and he’s always shown great integrity and neutrality in his rulings,” McGuire says.
According to Christy, attorneys practicing here, “don’t want to see any big changes come. I can guarantee you that if someone were in here messing things up, they would be raising Cain.” In 16 years of state financial audits, Christy says his office has come out unscathed. “There have been no scandals. We have had clean audits every year.”
And as for his opponent’s big ideas, Christy says it’s easier to talk sweeping changes than to try to enact them.
“There’s a lot of things he says he wants to do. But everything we do in this office is dictated by statute. We have no independent authority to implement new programs or do anything outside of the AOC umbrella.”
Looking around Christy’s office, with its law books by the pound and ranks of filing cabinets, it’s tempting to believe that the man is not going anywhere, anytime soon.
“My opponent is an interesting fellow,” Christy says, his face breaking into a playful smirk. “That’s all I’ll say. I can’t remember his name right now, but he’s certainly an interesting fellow.”
County clerk smackdown
Name: Don Yelton
Current occupation: Property owner
Previous occupation: Professor
Education: North Buncombe High School; bachelors in biology and psychology, UNCA; masters in biology, East Tennessee State University.
Wife’s name: Deborah
Pet: Roxie, a 13-pound Chihuahua-pinscher mix
Relaxes by: car-camping in Tennessee, picking apples and blueberries there
Name: Bob Christy
Current occupation: Buncombe County Clerk of Superior Court
Previous occupation: attorney
Education: Reynolds High School; bachelors in political science, Appalachian State; juris doctor, N.C. Central University
Wife’s name: Shannon
Pet: Beau, an 80-pound boxer
Relaxes by: golfing occasionally, wrestling with Beau