Judge Ashworth

Lancaster County President Judge David Ashworth meets with the LNP | LancasterOnline Editorial Board in the LNP Media Group studio on Monday, March 2, 2020. Ashworth says there's a staffing crisis in the Lancaster County Clerk of Courts Office.

THE ISSUE

“A day after Lancaster County’s government approved a plan to address critical staffing shortages at the prison, an email obtained by LNP|LancasterOnline showed that another part of county government is facing a staffing ‘crisis’ that threatens to disrupt normal operations,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Carter Walker reported last week. “An email from President Judge David Ashworth to the rest of the Lancaster County bench shows that the county’s judicial branch is concerned that staff loss in the Lancaster County Clerk of Courts Office will impact court operations.” Wrote Ashworth on Aug. 11: “It is no exaggeration to say that the Clerk of Courts office is in crisis. ... With recent resignations and a few yet to come they will be down to only 4 clerks who are able to go to court (and one is still a trainee). … Obviously, this creates a very serious issue for the court.”

Two years ago, Jackie Pfursich, then holding the elected position of county clerk of courts, won the praise of Josh Parsons, chairman of the county commissioners, for reducing the budget in the Clerk of Courts Office by $31,000.

He called the work of Pfursich and two other county officials who either had held the line on costs or reduced costs “pretty amazing.”

And perhaps it was. But Pfursich — who was appointed county solicitor earlier this summer by the Republican commissioners, Parsons and Ray D’Agostino, over the objections of Democratic Commissioner Craig Lehman — seems to have left the Clerk of Courts Office in something of a pickle.

A brief aside: Lehman objected to selecting an elected official for an appointed position. While Pfursich seems very qualified to be county solicitor, her political connections to the Republican commissioners are worth mentioning.

According to Walker’s reporting, records show that Pfursich has donated $650 to D’Agostino’s campaign committee; Parsons donated $1,000 to Pfursich’s campaign when she first ran for clerk of courts in 2015; and Edwin Pfursich, Jackie’s husband, served as treasurer of Parsons’ campaign committee until May 27, well after former county solicitor Chris Hausner announced her intention to retire. Only one other candidate was interviewed for the county solicitor position.

But back to the staffing issue in the Clerk of Courts Office.

As Judge Ashworth sees it, Pfursich’s temporary replacement, interim clerk Rhonda Allen, has been “placed in a horrible situation.”

That situation? Allen told LNP | LancasterOnline that her office has only 12 of a budgeted 19 employees, and two are leaving soon.

“We originally had 21,” Allen said. “Personally, this is my personal opinion, it should be 24, but we could function with 21.”

Because of the staffing challenges, employees in the office have had to double up on responsibilities, Allen said.

She said the two employees who will be departing soon are moving to positions that pay better. The starting rate for a clerk is $12.01 per hour.

“We don’t offer competitive wages to what’s out there now,” Allen said. “You can’t make people work for under $15 an hour if they don’t want to work for $15 an hour.”

This is true, as employers everywhere are discovering. In this climate, it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to find experienced employees for $3 less than what supermarkets are offering.

In our view, it would be smart to offer at least $15 to attract employees with expertise who would be productive and make the running of the county courts smoother. But as Walker reported, clerk salaries “are set by a contract negotiated between the county and a union representing employees of several different county government offices.”

A statement from the commissioners’ office said county officials are working on a “variety of options” to help departments like the clerk’s office and the prison to recruit employees. One idea, supported by Parsons: to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for a “professionally managed” advertising campaign.

Is this what D’Agostino meant when he said in late July that the commissioners were “looking at how we could use that money internally”?

By contrast, Lancaster city Mayor Danene Sorace said the city hoped to invest the American Rescue Plan funds in infrastructure and broadband, and support “a sustainable and equitable” COVID-19 recovery “with an emphasis on affordable housing.” That is, on people’s actual needs.

It seems like using federal relief funds for a “professionally managed” advertising campaign mostly would benefit whichever advertising company lands the campaign.

Why not use American Rescue Plan funds to pay for hiring and retention bonuses for employees in the Clerk of Courts Office, as the commissioners are doing with Lancaster County Prison employees? They all do essential work.

As the website of the Clerk of Courts Office explains, “County court operations in Pennsylvania involve complex work processes and specialized expertise. A highly trained staff in the Clerk of Courts office is essential in order to initiate, process, coordinate, maintain and archive all the data and documents associated with each case, and have them available to the various users on a time sensitive basis.”

Numerous county departments utilize case information to make “critical decisions” regarding incarceration of defendants, driver’s license suspensions and financial penalties, the website noted.

And each year, the Lancaster County Clerk of Courts Office handles approximately 8,000 new criminal court records (adult, juvenile and summary). “Since all documents pertinent to a criminal court case must be filed with the Clerk of Courts, the office is the hub of the criminal court system in the county. All criminal court related departments in county government rely upon the Clerk’s office for accurate and up-to-date records.”

That office’s other responsibilities include processing bail and appeals to state appellate courts.

No wonder Ashworth is worried about the staffing shortage.

“If they (the clerk’s office) don’t have the people to come into court, how are we supposed to function?” he asked.

It’s a good question.

The commissioners’ office disputed some of the staffing figures cited in Ashworth’s email. And, as Walker noted, the statement issued by the commissioners “celebrated two new hires coming on board and the fact that there are applicants pending for other open clerk positions.”

We’re glad two new employees are coming on board, but even with them, the Clerk of Courts Office will be short-staffed. And the fact that there are applications pending for other open clerk positions doesn’t really mean anything until those positions are filled.

We’d like to see the leaders of county government work things out expeditiously for the benefit of the many Lancaster County residents who expect the county courts to do their work speedily and, well, judiciously. Such cooperation would make for a nice change.

And county commissioners: Perhaps you can put the American Rescue Plan funds to good uses, beyond potentially rewarding an advertising company with an ad campaign. This county has plenty of needs that ought to be met.

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