2012 election candidate questionnaire: Katie Blakeman, Champaign County circuit clerk
Katie Blakeman, formerly Katie Malone
1209 W. Green St., Champaign, IL 61821
Date of birth: Sept. 28, 1979
B.A. Business Administration, concentrations in Marketing and Management; Augustana College, Rock Island IL, 2001
M.S. Library and Information Science; University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2011
1. Now that you have had time to analyze the office of circuit clerk, do you think any changes are needed in its staffing and administration?
With the retirement of Fred Wilkinson, one of the first administrative decisions I will need to make is the hiring of a new chief deputy. If elected, it is my intention to interview several candidates, both internal and external, opening up the application process to anyone interested. I see it not as a political appointment, but as a critical role that will require a passion that matches my own, as well as skills and experience in key areas that will assist me in moving the office forward into the 21st century.
Apart from the hiring of a chief deputy, I think it would be presumptuous to make any changes in staffing without having spent time leading the office and working side by side with the staff. It is also my intention to hold a staff retreat within my first 30 days in office, to share my goals for the office with them, and to work with them to find the best way to accomplish those goals. After a period of six to nine months, I would be in a much better position to evaluate staff and consider changes in reporting structure or the organization of staffing.
2. What is the state of the office staff morale? Is it better or worse than any other large government office?
For government offices led by elected officials, election years can be particularly difficult for staff morale. When the office is criticized publicly, it can be hard on staff members and their families, who have to read about their livelihoods in the newspaper. By making myself accessible through town hall meetings, community forums and by attending every parade and festival in the county, I have had the opportunity to meet a number of circuit clerk staff members, and they have shared with me their enthusiasm for my candidacy. They are eager to work with me at the helm, and I believe that with my leadership, the office dynamic will work very well.
I am thrilled to have received the endorsement from AFCSME Council 31, and to have been chosen by the employees as the candidate for whom they would like to work.
I believe that part of the reason I was chosen for the endorsement was my commitment to working the front desk personally, and to making the effort to learn the duties of the clerks. By working alongside staff, I can implement a hands on approach to managing the office, and model my expectation for customer service and efficiency first hand.
3. What in your background makes you well-qualified to run an administrative office to the courts?
The office of the circuit clerk serves as the front desk of the Champaign County judicial system, with two primary responsibilities: managing the integrity, preservation, and accessibility of all the circuit court records, and collection and disbursement of all court-related money.
My background includes two degrees that are directly related to the office: a B.A. in Business Administration, and an M.S. in Library and Information Science.
My professional career began in the private sector, working for Fortune 500 company, NewellRubbermaid. It was there that I gained experience in budgeting and personnel management, as well as a talent for providing outstanding customer service. When I took over the management of a sales team ranked near the bottom in the country, I was able to lead that team within 18 months to national sales awards and unprecedented revenue growth.
In 2006, I joined the University of Illinois, raising money for the Division of Student Affairs. At the university, I was responsible for the stewardship of more than 100 different gift funds, and built strong relationships with the directors of each of the 12 departments I worked with. It was also while working for the university that I improved my technological skills, and assisted in the development of data management systems.
At the end of the day, this office is about the management of records, the management of money and the management of people. Between my education and professional background, I believe I am uniquely qualified to run an exceptional office.
4. How well-acquainted are you with the Illinois courts system and the local circuit judges?
At the beginning of my campaign, I made it a priority to begin meeting with the local circuit judges, and building positive relationships. The conversations I have had with the judges have been extremely helpful, and I am confident that we will be able to work well together. I have also met with a large number of local attorneys, from various areas of practice, and their advice and support has been invaluable to my campaign. In addition to members of the Champaign County Bar Association, I have sought input from city and county police officers, as well as parole officers and legal secretaries. If elected, it is my intention to create an advisory committee made up of members of each of these primary user groups, to aid in responding directly to the needs of the Champaign County legal community.
I have also been closely following legislation that affects the office of circuit clerk. The statutes that pertain to the collection of court-related fees and fines are constantly changing, and with the aid of the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts, I am positive that I will be able to apply all necessary changes in a timely manner. Along with many members of the legal community, I am eagerly awaiting news of a ruling by the Illinois State Supreme Court on the ability of circuit courts to implement electronic filing. We anticipate the ruling to be made in the next few months.
5. Have you visited other circuit clerk's offices in Illinois to see how they are run? If so, did that visit generate any ideas or recommendations for change in Champaign County?
During this campaign, my time has been primarily focused on meeting with as many Champaign County voters as possible. This has included conducting town hall meetings in Mahomet, St. Joseph, Ludlow, Rantoul, Savoy and Homer, with upcoming dates in Urbana and Champaign. It has also involved knocking on thousands of doors, and pursuing every possible opportunity to seek input from the constituents who most frequently use the Champaign County circuit clerk's office, such as attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers, landlords, small business owners and genealogists.
So while I have not visited other circuit clerk's offices in person, I have reached out to several members of the Illinois Association of Court Clerks. To date, I have spoken with the circuit clerks of Douglas, Macon, Vermilion and Woodford counties, as well as with the Clerk of the 4th District Appellate Court. These conversations have been extremely helpful, and the greatest takeaway has been the collegiality of the profession. The Administrative Office of Illinois Courts (AOIC) provides a wealth of resources for circuit clerks, including conferences, trainings, mentoring programs and guidelines for the interpretation of Illinois statues. While each county may have different caseloads and differing numbers of employees, they all face similar challenges, and are constantly seeking opportunities to learn from one another. I was particularly impressed with the new online self-help centers available in Vermilion and Woodford counties (funded entirely with a grant from the state of Illinois), and the user-friendly interface of the public access system in Macon County.
I have also found it helpful to look to other states for inspiration. For example, the Consolidated Court Automation Program in Wisconsin is setting a new standard for open access to public court records, with a statewide public access portal. The case management system recently developed by Manatee County, Fla., is particularly intriguing with respect to cost savings. It is my fervent hope that by the end of my first term in office, circuit clerk offices around the state will be looking to Champaign County as a leader in technology, customer service and innovation.
6. What are the biggest problems with the circuit clerk's office today? Is/are those problem(s) easily remedied?
One of the biggest challenges facing the Champaign County circuit clerk's office is a decrease in overall revenue. The circuit clerk's budget is primarily funded through court fees, so the operation of the office is affected greatly by a decrease in collections. The number of civil cases filed in the state of Illinois in 2011 was nearly 90,000 less than in 2010. This has had a significant impact on Champaign County circuit clerk funds like the Court Automation Fund, which is has shown a downward trend over the last two years. In addition to a decrease in the number of fees collected, the funds invested by the office have been showing a reduced rate of return. These changes are largely due to a depressed economy, which in itself is not easily remedied. However, it is certainly possible to increase the collection rate of existing fees by improving automation processes and seeking efficiencies in all areas of operation. Electronic filing of appeals cases alone should result in significant cost savings, considering that the average appeals case numbers in the thousands of pages.
The legal system in Illinois is in the midst of a major change, and the circuit clerk's office is in a position to lead that change for Champaign County. The Illinois Supreme Court is in the process of reviewing electronic filing and electronic judge's signatures, and has already ruled in favor of electronic ticketing. Champaign County can be a regional and state leader in this area and electing a circuit clerk who understands the impact of technology on the legal system will be incredibly important. However, moving toward a paperless courthouse will not be an easy or rapid process, but one that will require passion and enthusiasm for the project and the skills to lead the entire legal community through a major cultural change.
7. Why are you better qualified than your opponent to make those changes?
The primary challenges in the circuit clerk's office require strong financial and technological backgrounds. With an undergraduate degree in Business Administration and private sector experience in budgeting and revenue generation, as well as an intense study of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board guidelines, I am well equipped to respond to the budgetary challenges faced by the office.
With a graduate degree in Library and Information Science, and professional experience in the evaluation, training and implementation of database systems and innovative technologies, I am ready to lead the Champaign County circuit clerk's office into the 21st century. My graduate work included specific study of information technology project management, the development of online tutorials, the creation of digital archives and preservation of electronic documents, as well as the administration of public information centers.
While my education and professional background speaks for itself, the new circuit clerk must first and foremost be a people person. Every position in my career has had a great emphasis on relationship-building and customer service, and those skills are greatly needed in an office that interacts so closely with the public. I will bring enthusiasm, positive energy, and efficiency to the front desk of the Champaign County judicial system.