BISBEE — A 2018 consultant’s report on the issues plaguing the Cochise County Clerk of the Superior Court revealed a disorganized, chaotic environment where employee-supervisor relationships were strained, errors were common and training was minimal.
Since then, the clerk who was elected to the position shortly after the report was issued has worked tirelessly to address the numerous issues identified during the audit.
The study, titled the “Final Report on the Operations of the Office of Clerk of the Superior Court in Cochise County,” was issued on Dec. 31, 2018, after consultant Douglas Kooi spent 10 months examining the workings of the clerk’s office. Kooi is a former court administrator for the Pima County Superior Court.
The in-depth look at the Clerk’s Office was embarked upon “with the intent of resolving numerous financial and operational issues that had been plaguing the Clerk of the Superior Court’s Office since early 2011,” Kooi’s report says in the introduction.
Kooie wrote that initially the review of the Clerk’s Office was supposed to focus only on financial issues, but when he arrived, several other situations surfaced that needed immediate attention.
“The initial plan was to begin reviewing the financial operations of the office as there were a series of negative audits suggesting poor management and control over these functions,” Kooi said in the 14-page report.
“Upon arrival, it became apparent that there were significant issues involving the day-to-day operation of the office that required more immediate attention.”
Amy Hunley, who was elected Clerk of the Superior Court in January 2019, just one month after Kooi’s report was issued, had worked inside the county’s judicial system before she ran for office. In a telephone interview Friday, she said she knew she could make a difference and perhaps fix the monumental mess that the office of the Clerk of the Superior Court had become.
One of the issues mentioned by Kooi was the $90 million the courts were owed in fines, fees, judgements entered and restitutions. Hunley said she’s not certain how many years of unpaid fees the mammoth amount represents, but with the implementation of the FARE Collection Program last year (Fines/Fees and Restitution Enforcement) and working with the Arizona Supreme Court, the Cochise County Clerk of the Superior Court’s office is now able to more efficiently collect what’s owed by the public.
Kooi also discovered that the Clerk of the Superior Court owed about $83,000 to victims in a total of 444 cases dating to 2010, but the issue had since been addressed for the most part, he reported.
“Working collaboratively with the Cochise County Attorney’s Victim Witness Division and Adult Probation, staff was able to find nearly all of these victims and to disburse all but $14,000 of these funds,” Kooi said.
The office needed a business manager as noted in Kooi’s report, but instead Hunley created the position of data integrity analyst. That position is tasked with helping the Clerk of the Superior Court identify where training is needed and checking data accuracy.
Another roadblock notated by Kooi was the inability to retain staff.
“It was discovered that the current attrition rate within the Clerk’s Office was 64.7% and that many of the staff holding key positions had only been in them for a matter of weeks or months,” Kooi stated in his report.
He also wrote that employees were unhappy with supervisors and that the environment was “toxic.”
“Key positions such as the financial manager had remained unfilled for as long as a year. The office environment was clearly toxic and not conducive to employee satisfaction, wellbeing, or productivity,” Kooi said.
“Many of the staff reported that they were in constant fear of losing their jobs and were hesitant to report errors or issues they identified as requiring resolution. As a result, errors were buried rather than resolved. It was also immediately obvious that many of the staff had not received sufficient training.
“When issues arose, staff often did not know what to do,” Kooi added. “There was evidence that some of the training provided was incorrect and based on anecdotal information or prior poor practices. Further, it became clear that the Clerk’s Office had no useful policies or operating procedures with which to use to train staff or to manage the activities of the office effectively.”
“In many cases, staff who had only been hired weeks before themselves were training new staff. Due to the lack of training and vetted procedures, errors were unavoidable, and staff continued to make them. It was also apparent that the Clerk of the Court’s Office had negative working relationships with nearly all local stakeholders. This made it extremely difficult to resolve common issues and to work collaboratively to resolve them.”
One of the strongest statements in Kooi’s report is, “A large concern was that most of the judges, along with court administration staff, expressed a total lack of confidence in the Clerk’s Office.”
Hunley said those issues have all been addressed. Standardized training is being done for all staff — there are 33 employees in the Clerk of the Superior Court’s Bisbee and Sierra Vista offices — and the office is communicating regularly with all of its stakeholders.
“We’ve opened up communication with all our stakeholders,” Hunley said. “We encourage them to tell us if they think anything is going wrong.”
She also said the office has a strong relationship with Judge James Conlogue, the presiding judge of the Cochise County Superior Court.
Additionally, because of better and more consistent training, Hunley said the attrition rate of employees also has decreased significantly compared to when Kooi completed his review in 2018.
Hunley said she believes most of the chaos and confusion that was found in the Clerk of the Superior Court’s office had to do with lack of training.
“i think that’s why the attrition rate was so high,” Hunley said.
One of the more curious issues that popped up during the 10 months Kooi worked on his report was the discovery of an old vault inside the Clerk’s Office in Bisbee. The vault contained several personal items that may have been there for more than half a decade.
“Staff will need to continue investigating several personal bank and checking account records, insurance policies, jewelry, and savings bonds found in an unused vault in the Clerk’s Office,” Kooi stated. “Some of these items have been held since the 1950s.”
Familiar with the old vault, Hunley said that’s definitely one of the issues that she and her staff will “get into.” She said the items may have been left over from court cases.
“We had other issues we had to attend to first, but we’re hoping to get into the vault,” Hunley said.