Better record access, office morale a priority for Lake circuit clerk candidates
Improving access to court-related records and services is a key topic in the race for Lake County circuit clerk.
Incumbent Democrat Erin Cartwright Weinstein, who is seeking a second four-year term, is challenged by Waukegan attorney Gloria Schmidt Rodriguez in her first run for elected office.
The clerk's office by law is the official keeper of records for all judicial matters brought into the 19th Circuit Court and handles criminal and civil court filings, traffic ticket payments, passport issuance and other items.
Rodriguez is a military veteran from Miami who operates a law firm with offices in Waukegan and Chicago. She said her leadership style and personality make her a good fit for the position.
"We're two sides of the coin entirely," she said. "My differences make me better suited for the job."
Weinstein, a lawyer and Gurnee resident, said many improvements have been made since she took office.
"The first thing is experience," she said of why voters should reelect her. "I have kept moving since I came in. We haven't stopped making changes."
According to Weinstein, the programs that have started or been established during her tenure include: online payments; an incentive program for staff; a contract to digitize all documents; implementing electronic filing; and, proceeding with the office's first case management system, scheduled to go live in fall 2021.
Rodriguez said she is running to ensure that groups of people, such as those without attorneys, those who don't speak English or the disabled have "equal access to justice."
She said the clerk's office can do a better job of helping them navigate the court system and says the policy of not providing legal advice has been used as an excuse to turn people away.
"People without an attorney, I think (need) more help in understanding these procedures," Rodriguez said.
Weinstein said there are computer kiosks where staff can help people with disabilities or others but said it is not the office's directive to provide legal help.
"As circuit court clerks, we cannot give legal advice," she said. "This is a very fine line and we have to be careful."
Rodriguez said a better office work environment also is a priority.
"We have a lot of uninspired clerks," she said. "We really need to get to the bottom of why people are unhappy and cultivate a culture where people are happy," she added.
Weinstein said she works every day toward that goal.
Employee recognition and incentive programs, for example, have been established, she said, and the first union contract was finalized under her watch. One hundred of the 130 office employees are clerks.
"It's really important to me they feel appreciated," Weinstein said of her employees.
Rodriguez said if someone wants to review a document in a case file, they have to go to the courthouse and wait in line while the information is retrieved. Better electronic access is needed, she added.
"There are easier ways of getting documents to people and I would effectuate those changes within my first 100 days as circuit clerk," she said.
Weinstein said a new case management system is being integrated and all records are being digitized.
The goal is that all attorneys, judges, the clerk and public will view and sign documents on computer screens even in the courtroom. That will significantly reduce the use of paper and increase access to public documents, she said.