Erin Cartwright Weinstein: Candidate profile, Lake County circuit court clerk
Incumbent Democrat Erin Cartwright Weinstein of Gurnee faces a challenge from Republican Gloria Schmidt Rodriguez of Waukegan in the race for Lake County circuit court clerk.
Q: Why are you running for this office, whether for reelection or election for the first time? Is there a particular issue that motivates you? If so, what?
A: I practiced law in Lake County for almost 17 years before taking this position in 2016. My love of the law, and desire to do public service makes this the perfect job.
The law is constantly changing, and applying the changes to our services is always a new challenge. I enjoy helping the public, attorneys, not-for-profit organizations navigate through the court system. The court system is intimidating, and it is important to have a connection with the community and be able to assist them as needed.
My staff makes this office what it is, and it is important that they are treated with respect and know that they are appreciated for all of their hard work.
Additionally, this office holds an amnesty week every year that removes collection fees and interest from past due balances on traffic and criminal cases, an annual expungement summit in conjunction with Coalition to Reduce Recidivism and Waukegan Township, and passport services Monday through Friday in Waukegan and once a month in various locations around the county on a Saturday.
It is an honor to be a part of these services and help our residents improve their quality of life.
Q: If you are an incumbent, describe your main contributions. Tell us of any important initiatives you've led. If you are a challenger, what would you bring to the board and what would your priority be?
A: First, I terminated the contract with the e-File vendor chosen by the previous clerk. $5.3 million had been spent and the product was not working after six years. I switched the office to the state sponsored e-File system, which was up and running within 12 months after I took office, and did not cost the tax payers any money. Third, we contracted with a new vendor to replace the DOS/COBOL record management system. The new system will be implemented in approximately one year.
This office will be able to go e-record and increase access to public documents. This project was done fiscally responsibly, and all four justice partners are part of the upgrade.
Fourth, we entered into a contract to digitize all of our records. We are currently working out of paper files, and the office needs to upgrade to e-record. Once the new case management system is live, we would like to be 100 percent electronic.
Fifth, we created an online payment system for traffic tickets. Sixth, we finalized the first union contract for the clerks. Seventh, I have fought for fiscal transparency. On March 22, 2019, I testified before the Illinois House of Representatives for better laws on auditing county offices.
Q: Describe your position regarding the allocation of resources in the clerk of the circuit court's office. Are personnel allocated as they should be? Are there capital expense or other budgetary items that the office must address, and, if so, how do you propose to address them?
A: The clerk's office is approximately 66 percent personnel costs. Over the last few years, there has been a reduction in staff due to budget cuts. However, when I started in office, the clerks were making below a living wage, and we entered into a union contract which increased their pay to a living wage. We have been working to even out pay based upon seniority, experience, and title, but that is always an ongoing project.
We also added an incentive program to encourage employees to cross train in other divisions and become more versatile within the office.
We do not have many capital expenses. Currently, we are integrating a new case management system and digitizing all of our records. The funds for these projects were saved prior to initiating the projects. The only other capital projects would be any changes required by the Supreme Court or by legislative changes. We try to anticipate these changes ahead of time, and have a buffer in our special revenue funds to pay for them.
Q: Name one concrete program you'll create or personnel move you'll make to improve efficiency in the office or make it more successful. Explain how it will be funded and how you will overcome any obstacles to initiating it.
A: The biggest program changes are the digitization of the records and the new case management system. Those programs will significantly impact how our office functions and resources will shift. I have a vision of the changes, but my vision may modify as the projects develop. Record digitization will reduce the space we will need for physical storage, but will increase cloud storage.
Personnel will no longer be pulling physical files out of storage or off shelves, but will be providing remote assistance. The attorneys, judges, clerk and the public will be viewing and signing documents on computer screens -- even in the courtroom. The amount of paper used in the office will significantly reduce. The public's accessibility to information and documents will occur in real time.
I envision an increase in my staff having IT knowledge, and a decrease in physical labor and transport. IT staff will be imperative to protect the integrity and security of the court records. Public documents will be public and confidential documents will be properly secured. The expenses will shift, and reduce over time.
Q: Describe your position on transparency in the office and the ease of access to records by the public. If you believe improvements are needed, what are they and how would you go about achieving them?
A: Transparency is very important. Our budget is online, and our spending is calculated in the office as well as with the county finance team. Receipts for expenses are attached to the invoice or charge. All of our office requirements and spending is discussed publicly at the county board meetings.
Because we lack a case management system, and we function with paper records, there needs to be significant improvement in responding to public document requests. This has been my number one initiative since I took office. The document digitization project and new case management system will bring e-record to the forefront.
In the meantime, we have instituted online payment programs, telephone payments, e-Filing, and emailing documents when requested. For those who are unable to e-File or use electronic means, we accept documents by mail, in person and, during COVID, we are using an email system. We try to accommodate everyone's needs the best we are able until our new systems are live.
Q: In light of the coronavirus pandemic, going forward, do you see needed staffing or equipment improvements/reductions/changes? Does/will how services are provided have to fundamentally and permanently change as a result? What do suggest?
A: The pandemic forced us to re-evaluate how we do business. We realized that the new case management system is imperative. The new system will allow us to look at ongoing video court options for certain scenarios instead of in person, which could reduce foot traffic and speed up court calls.
We have looked at business rule changes that we established during this pandemic and how that may be beneficial in the future. For example, bond hearings occurring in the municipal police departments instead of requiring a transport to the sheriff.
We have modified how we connect with the public to assist them with the changes. We created a stronger presence with the community through a social media presence, video recordings, pamphlets on how to. We share information between county departments and through local civic organizations.
The police departments have assisted us by providing information to the public when they have contact. The relationships between community leaders and organizations have become a necessity to insure the public is informed of changes in the circuit clerk's office and the courts.