URBANA — There isn't a whole lot of difference in the ideas of the two women vying to be Champaign County's next circuit clerk.
Both veteran Democrat Barb Wysocki and political newcomer Katie Blakeman, a Republican, want the office to be more user-friendly, plan to use technology to enhance the public's access to records, and promise to be far more visible than Linda Frank, a Republican who was appointed to her post in April 1991 and then elected to it for five four-year terms. Frank chose not to run for re-election.
"I plan on working the front desk myself and modeling my expectation for treating every resident with respect and efficient and positive service, even if it's the seventeenth time in an hour (an employee) has heard the same question," Blakeman said.
"I will be there every day. I do plan to be visible," Wysocki said.
Both said they also plan to simplify the office for users. Wysocki said that might mean designating certain windows for certain services, such as traffic tickets, while Blakeman said it could be as easy as putting up better signs to direct folks to services.
Simply put, the circuit clerk serves the justice system as the keeper of court records and collector of fines. Ideally, the clerk works closely with the other department heads in the justice system: sheriff, state's attorney, public defender, probation office, judges — and the lawyers using the courthouse.
Both women maintain they will have no problem working well with all those folks.
By virtue of her prior service, Wysocki may have a better idea of what she's getting into.
The 69-year-old Urbana resident was first elected to the Champaign County Board in 1998 and served until 2010. From 2004 to 2006, she was the board chairwoman. She's familiar with the current JANO computer system in use and the need to squirrel away funds to pay for an upgrade.
"There's probably an opportunity with fresh eyes to go through the budget ... to see if there are areas where greater savings can be recognized and allocations can happen. The automation fees (part of defendants' fines), for example, can be supplemented and make that a reality sooner than later," Wysocki said of an upgrade.
She visited the Sangamon County Circuit Clerk, where JANO is also in use, and came away thinking "there's probably potential there that we have yet to recognize."
"The office needs to embrace technology much more than it has been doing. A lot of legal-services citizens could access online rather than having to come to the office," she said, citing as an example, divorces where neither property nor children are in dispute.
Blakeman is of a like mind about the technology.
The Illinois Supreme Court has expressed its desire to move to electronic filing — the federal courts have already implemented it — but the rules haven't been set forth yet for all counties.
"There are a number of standards we are going to have to meet. I have strong technological skills myself but also know to hire the right people," said Blakeman, 33, of Champaign.
Blakeman has a master's degree in library and information science and did graduate work in developing online tutorials, creating digital archives and preserving electronic documents, and administering public information centers — all of which she would like to do as circuit clerk.
"I definitely have ideas. I would like to see better integration between all the county offices for its website. If you are an average citizen and don't know which office has marriage licenses or where to go to file an order of protection, you can go to the county's website and it would direct you to the right place.
"I would love to link more to Illinois Legal Aid online. That provides forms and instructions for people looking for help (who plan to represent themselves)," she said, noting Vermilion County is already doing that.
Blakeman believes the current public access case lookup system could be improved but definitely wants it to "remain free and open." Wysocki agreed that as many records as possible should be accessible online.
Currently staying home with a toddler, Blakeman most recently worked in development at the University of Illinois. She said she was responsible for the stewardship of more than 100 different gift funds. In a previous job, she managed a sales team at Newell Rubbermaid.
Prior to her 2002 retirement, Wysocki was a high school history teacher for 34 years — 17 years in LaSalle-Peru and another 17 at University Laboratory High School in Urbana.
Both Wysocki and Blakeman said there must be improvement in the collection of fees and fines.
"The first thing that needs to happen is that the individual parties get a bill the minute there is a decision in the case. It makes no sense that it can't be accomplished the minute a case is (resolved)," Wysocki said. "On the way out, they should stop at the circuit clerk, whip out their plastic or checkbook and then they leave. There's a cost to tracking down people who have outstanding fines and fees. If we could reduce that, that would be a good start."
Blakeman said the computer system needs to be set up to alert the collection agency working for the county as soon as a deadline is missed.
"You can flag it in the system if it has a special circumstance," she said, in a nod to judicial discretion for defendants who can't always pay on time.