Inside the Courts

Her kingdom for a scanner: Elisa Chinn-Gary continues to revamp the clerk’s office

Elisa Chinn-Gary marks her success as Mecklenburg County’s clerk of court when the best ideas in her office come from somebody else.

Take the scanner.

First, we must place it against the technological void that plagues most of the local criminal-justice system. There, and despite the stakes, the coins of the realm largely remain manual labor and paper products.

And then ...

Chinn-Gary, who you can read more about in Sunday’s paper, was elected clerk in 2014. Longtime employees in her new office say she made an early impression by asking them what they thought. In time, some of them actually began telling her.

The new clerk refers to her office as “the veins of the courthouse.” Its 200-plus employees handle and protect more than 300,000 filings a year. It collects around $100 million in settlements, fees and fines. Traditionally, its veins have been clogged by inadequate budgets, extreme workload, high turnover and an almost Luddite lack of technology.

Which brings us back to the scanner. For decades, all those checks collected were manually endorsed, rubber-banded together and carted off to the bank. Then one of Chinn-Gary’s supervisors came up with the idea of sending those checks electronically. All that took was the office’s first scanner. Chinn-Gary figured out how to pay for it, and presto ... hours of work were saved.

Now in her second year as clerk, the 47-year-old Chinn-Gary continues to revamp the courthouse’s largest operation. Each day, she expects her assistants to challenge the ways things have always been done. She also wants them to broaden their job descriptions and play a bigger role improving the state’s largest local criminal-justice system.

Longtime staffers say morale has dramatically improved. So has customer service and the public’s access to records. As the former longtime family court administrator, Chinn-Gary also had enough courthouse cred to ease longtime turf wars.

“How can I say this without getting in trouble – Elisa has completely revolutionized her office,” says District Court Judge Lou Trosch. “Now we have a partner, and we’re working together on issues, and that’s helping all of us move forward.”

Jeff White, a 20-year clerk employee, says Chinn-Gary’s collaborative approach with her staff has been enthusiastically received. “You can see it, you can feel it,” he says.

The office remains understaffed and underfunded. It is also severely hamstrung by a new state law that put the clerk in charge of mental health background checks for gun buyers. Before the law went into effect in December, the office handled fewer than 150 of the checks a month. Now it’s 2,000, and that’s meant a four-month backup.

Typically, Chinn-Gary went looking for a solution and found a partner to help. Sheriff Irwin Carmichael and Chinn-Gary hope to announce a plan in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, she continues to lobby for better pay for her employees and the money to further modernize her office.

Indeed, her budget request to Mecklenburg County seeks enough money for a radically high-tech piece of equipment.

It’s called a shredder.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS