Crime & Courts

Two lawyers, with similar goals, eye Mecklenburg County Clerk of Court’s seat

For the first time in a quarter of a century, Mecklenburg County needs a new clerk of Superior Court, and two Republican attorneys with experience in the office both want the job.

Martha Efird and Paulina Havelka hope to take over for their former boss, Martha Curran, who is retiring after holding the position since 1990. The winner of the May 6 GOP primary faces Democrat Elisa Chinn Gary in November. The clerk serves a four-year term.

The clerk’s staff of more than 200 handles some 300,000 legal filings a year and stores all civil and criminal court files. The office also has numerous judicial responsibilities – from the probate of wills to presiding over adoptions, incompetency hearings, condemnations and foreclosures. It also handles money collected from fines and court fees.

Both Efird and Havelka list their experiences in the clerk’s office among their top qualifications for the job. Both offer inspiring personal stories, and their goals for the office follow a similar bent. (During off hours, both like to dance.)

Efird, however, has Curran’s endorsement.

The 54-year-old Huntersville resident ran a law practice for 16 years. In 2010, her husband, Larry, died suddenly. She joined Curran’s staff in 2011 and spent 2 1/2 years as an assistant clerk and a legal hearing officer before returning to private practice last year. She said Curran urged her to enter the race.

During this, her first run for office, Efird says she has spent as much time introducing the clerk’s office to voters as she has herself.

“It has allowed me to be a voice for the office, to bring awareness to it,” she says. “I’ve met so many people who say, ‘I don’t know what the clerk does.’ I’ve been able to educate them in so many ways.”

If elected, she says she wants to balance the office’s personnel and technology to best serve all consumers of the courthouse, from lawyers and judges to the public that calls in or walks through the door. As a manager on Curran’s staff, she said she was effective in finding the hidden talents of co-workers, improving morale and service.

She says her roles as a manager and legal officer on Curran’s staff give her firsthand information on the broadest swath of the office’s responsibility and separate her from her opponents.

“The Charlotte metro area has changed so much. The court system has to grow and develop with the community,” she says. “… Part of what I bring to the job is a perspective to keep the operations and the delivery of services relevant to the current needs of the community.”

Havelka came to Charlotte in 1989, about two years after her family emigrated from Poland. She joined the clerk’s office in 1997 while a full-time college student and a single mother with two children.

She credits the year on Curran’s staff with inspiring her to become a lawyer. But she says it was a trip to Auschwitz as a girl – Havelka grew up a few miles away from the former Nazi extermination camp – that codified her strong feelings about suffering and justice, right and wrong.

As an 11-year-old, she came to the country unable to speak English. In 2005, she passed the bar and opened her practice a year later.

Havelka, 39, says her perspective as a lawyer and a former deputy clerk has not only taught her the value of the clerk’s office but also the importance of teaming up with other parts of the courthouse to better serve the public.

She said she hopes to help the office become more efficient and accurate and to reward the best employees with opportunities for growth and education. She also wants to work with the state’s other court clerks to make a statewide push for improved technology.

Havelka said she cried when she left the office in the late 1990s. Now she wants to return.

“It’s near and dear to my heart,” she says. “I want to do something great there.”

Researcher Maria David contributed