Democratic candidates are contesting three open county row office positions on the ballot this year, the first time the party has competed for every open seat in two decades. The positions voters will fill are county controller, clerk of courts and recorder of deeds.
While Democrats may be more in the game than in years past, they still have a steep mountain to climb if they are to overcome the Republicans’ voter registration advantage. Though shrinking in recent years, Republicans still represent 51% of the county’s registered voters to Democrats’ 32.5%. That edge has given the GOP near total control of county government.
LNP sent a questionnaire to all candidates running this year. Here are the responses:
Clerk of Courts
The clerk of courts is in charge of managing files for Lancaster County’s criminal court and providing administrative support during trials. One of the big issues the winner will face is a staffing crisis in the office. President Judge David Ashworth sent an email in August warning that the office was losing professional staff, mainly due to the low starting wages.
Name: Mary Anater
Education: Juris Doctorate from Widener University School of Law
Prior Experience: Law clerk under Lancaster County Judges Thomas Sponaugle and Merrill Spahn
Why are you running? “In my legal career, I have worked directly with the Clerk of Courts and know the importance of this office. I have the right combination of legal experience and administrative skills to serve the taxpayers of Lancaster County.”
What experience do you have that qualifies you for the office? “I have been a licensed attorney for over 20 years. Having worked in the Lancaster County Courthouse, I have a grassroot understanding of the Judicial System and the nuances of the Lancaster County Courts. My extensive knowledge of the criminal justice procedures will serve both our legal community and the public starting on day one.”
How will you address the staffing shortage? “In order to attract the most qualified and effective staff, it is of utmost importance to create an office environment where people want to work. That includes listening to staff and implementing suggestions and processes that come from those that do the work on a daily basis. Having a motivated and engaged staff is vital to any organization, and particularly so in these days of employee shortages. Finding the right people and keeping them requires being their advocate for positive change.”
What are your ideas for improving the office? “I will look for efficiencies and utilize technology improvements wherever practical.”
Name: Michelle Batt
Education: Juris Doctorate from Penn State University Dickinson School of Law
Prior Experience: Public Defender with the Lancaster County Public Defender’s office
Why are you running? “When the Office was vacated midterm in the midst of a staffing crisis, a great disservice was done to our community. This crisis not only threatens court operations, but service to the public suffers when staff is stretched. I am running for Clerk of Courts because my fellow Lancastrians deserve a choice, and they deserve better.”
What experience do you have that qualifies you for the office? “From my internship with the Juvenile attorney at the Centre County Public Defender office, to my clerkship with the President Judge of Monroe County, to my career as a public defender, I have ten years’ experience in criminal law, public service and interfacing with the stakeholders in our criminal system. I am familiar with the law and procedures governing court operations and understand the practicalities related to the administration of justice. As the main task of the Clerk of Courts is to be custodian of records for criminal matters, I am well qualified for the position.”
How will you address the staffing shortage? “Everywhere you look, companies are hiring. Just down the street from my house, the National Novelty Brush Company is hiring at $15/hr. According to lancasterpaclerkofcourts.com/27/About-Us, court operations “involve complex work processes and specialized expertise” and “a highly trained staff . . . is essential.” So the first step is to attract qualified candidates who are capable of the required skilled labor with competitive pay. The second step is to ensure retention through competitive benefits and pay and by leadership practices that appreciate the difficulties of working in the criminal system.”
What are your ideas for improving the office? “Some of the Office’s forms and practices are dated. For instance, the sentencing form doesn’t include language for either the Boot Camp or State Drug Treatment Program which can result in people being denied participation in sentencing alternatives including substance use disorder treatment. If elected, I would review all internal forms and procedures and update where necessary.”
The County Controller supervises the fiscal affairs of the county and performs audits to ensure departments are operating efficiently.
Name: Chris Hess
Prior Experience: Beverage Director at The Pressroom
Hess did not respond to the questionnaire but instead sent a statement, a portion of which is printed here:
“I will put an end to wasteful spending and back-door deals. I will promote the success of our Lancaster county businesses and economy by ensuring local use of our tax dollars and continue that process with reabsorption of funds back into OUR businesses.
“Within my professional background, I hold a wealth of financial responsibility and experience increasing efficiency to help businesses succeed. I hold experience with leadership positions that promoted teams with achieving common goals. I intend to use these skills to help the controller’s office reduce fraudulent, wasteful, and deceptive spending. I will also find ways to spend more of our tax dollars locally.”
LNP|LancasterOnline reached out to Hess to ask him to provide any evidence for his claim of "fraudulent, wasteful, and deceptive spending."
In response, Hess referenced LNP's past reporting on former District Attorney Craig Stedman's lease of a SUV using drug forfeiture funds. He also pointed to campaign contributions to local Republicans that he believed were corrupt because the officials who received the funds could take actions to benefit the donors.
But contrary to Hess's implications, the Controller's office does not play a role in recording or vetting the propriety of campaign donations. As for Stedman's car lease, the controller in office at the time did sign a document that Stedman later cited as proving the use of forfeited drug assets was legitimate.
Name: Lisa Colon
Education: Bachelors of Science from Penn State University
Prior Experience: Auditing and Accounting Assistant Manager in the Lancaster County Controller’s Officer
Why are you running? “I have an opportunity to make a difference by combining my desire to serve others with my knowledge of and experience in the Controller’s Office. Throughout my life I have learned the importance of perseverance. After my employer closed its doors, I found myself without a means of providing for my children. I then enrolled in school as a fulltime student at Penn State earning an enhanced bachelor’s degree in accounting, while working and raising my three children. During this time, life was tough but I always said, ‘Some day I will have the means and ability to give back to the community that I often found it necessary to reach out to.’ As an elected servant of the people, this role will provide the ability and means to do just that!”
What experience do you have that qualifies you for the office? “I have over sixteen years of experience in private and governmental accounting, six of which have been in the Controller’s Office. I oversee the audit team, auditing countywide departments providing assurance to taxpayers that their monies are used wisely and appropriately. I also prepare several of the County’s financial reports such as the Single Audit, a reconciliation of federal funds received and expended by the County, for example, the $95million in CARES funds received this past year.”
What are your ideas for improving the office? “As Controller, I will have the ability to enact change and improvements within the office and County government. My goal is to streamline processes, within the constraints of the budget, while utilizing the best of our employees’ strengths. I will use my direct experience and knowledge to make fiscally sound decisions regarding the County’s pension plan or a discussion on wages as a member of Retirement and Salary Board, and I will reflect on my employment at the Prison to make informed decisions as I serve on Prison Board.”
Recorder of Deeds
The Recorder of Deeds is responsible for keeping track of public records, primarily real estate and uniform commercial code documents.
Name: Ann Hess
Education: Juris Doctorate from Widener University School of Law
Prior Experience: Incumbent Recorder of Deeds, elected in 2018
Why are you running? “I initially ran for the position of Recorder of Deeds four years ago based on my experience in real estate law and my desire to bring fiscally conservative values and a small business attitude to County Government. I have been successful in achieving this over the past four years. Visitors to the Recorder’s Office are treated as valued customers, with respect, and met with a smile by staff that are courteous and knowledgeable. Fiscally, I have cut the budget of the Office each and every year that I have served. Additionally, for each and every year that I have served, I have given money back to the County General Fund (and therefore the taxpayers) in excess of my operating budget. I have not increased staff (7) and have provided the fastest recording rate possible. All documents are recorded on the day they are received with few exceptions. I know of no other Recording Office in the Commonwealth that provides this level of service. I am running to ensure that this level of service and fiscal responsibility continues.”
What experience do you have that qualifies you for the office? “I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from Holy Family College; a MBA with a specialization in Accounting from LaSalle University, and a JD from Widener University School of Law. I practiced real estate and consumer financial law for nearly 30 years. I have attended numerous continuing education courses in real estate and title law and have been a member of the Pennsylvania Recorder of Deeds Association for several years.”
What are your ideas for improving the office? “While I have implemented many of my ideas and goals over the past four years, including increasing electronic recording percentages to over 90% each day, expeditious recording of documents, an emphasis on customer service, and preserving the historical land records of Lancaster County for future generations, I want to continue and safeguard these successes. Customer service and fiscal responsibility remain top priorities; however, I am also working to improve the electronic plan recording system and continuing our program and training of the staff wherein we closely monitor real estate transactions for fraudulent documents so that the land owners of Lancaster County do not have to worry that their land will be fraudulently conveyed by a false deed or mortgage.”
Name: Dominic Castaldi
Education: Bachelor of Arts in Economics from West Chester University
Prior Experience: Economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics
Why are you running? “After years with the federal government I am looking to serve in a position closer to the people. While serving on Mount Joy Borough Council has provided a roll in local government, my skill set is a good match for the Recorder of Deeds position at the County level. Secondly Democrats have always had a presence in Lancaster County. We are here, belong here, and here to stay! Our registration numbers have grown significantly while Democrats haven’t always contested the ‘County Row Offices.’ This is changing as we are fielding a slate of 3 great candidates! Additionally the actions of local and Harrisburg Republicans, has resulted in forfeiture of their duties, rights to govern and especially not to run in uncontested elections.”
What experience do you have that qualifies you for the office? “Beyond my service as a federal economist at (BLS), I also served as an elected Tax Collector in the Borough of Downingtown and a Board Member of the Chamber of Commerce there. I chaired the membership committee and participated in the implementation of our Main Street program. I have been a PIAA Basketball Official for 20 years working the Lancaster/Lebanon League. More recently I was a member of the Penn Medicine/Lancaster General Health’s Contact Tracing Team combating the spread of Covid-19. This in the absence of a County level Health Department. My experiences in the private and public sectors has given me the tools to be successful locally (borough council) and if elected at county level, Recorder of Deeds."
What are your ideas for improving the office? “I view the role of the Recorder of Deeds as representing the county residents who use the office, while advocating for the employees who carry out the Recorder’s mission. While this office doesn’t seem to have the well documented problems as the Clerk of Courts and Controller, staffing is an ongoing problem county wide. I do hope to meet the incumbent soon, and if elected I’ll meet with the staff then make my assessment of conditions and issue my recommendations going forward after the election.”