OTTUMWA — The public will see a difference at their county courthouse. For the clerks, however, it might just be business as usual.
Currently, all clerk of court offices in the state close to the public on Tuesday and Thursday at 2:30 p.m. In the most recently approved budget, the Iowa Supreme Court authorized more than 40 additional positions for the state's clerk of court offices so all will be open to the public full time again: from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
"Being open full time is a good public service," said Kim Schweiger in the clerk of court's office, Davis County. "I think it'll help the public."
"Clerks' reduced office hours," Annette Scieszinski, 8th District court judge, told the Courier Thursday, "[were] an emergency measure to allow staff to get paperwork done in the wake of budget-driven lay-offs."
To that end, it worked, she said, but there was a cost. She said she and her fellow judges also ran into roadblocks due to the important role the clerks play in getting paperwork moving.
"Some of the greatest hardship occurred in Wapello County where there is a high volume of customer demand for service at all hours. For example, just this week, on Tuesday afternoon, the clerk and I were working on an emergency request for mental commitment but could not complete it because additional information had to be brought in. The clerk's mandatory 2:30 p.m. closure interfered with that, and thus frustrated our ability to get that completed."
Though judges and members of the public may appreciate having more access to court records and other documents in the clerk's office, employees there won't notice too big a change.
"This office did not have reduced hours," explained Deb Littlejohn. "We worked 40 hours, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Tuesday and Thursday, we closed to the public at 2:30 p.m. We're still going to be here. After September 3, we'll be open full time to the public."
When clerk offices around the state "closed early," the staff was still inside, catching up on filing records, putting documents online and doing the other administrative tasks that are set aside each time a member of the public comes in looking for assistance.
"We got a lot of stuff done during those 'closing' times. Now, they are going to be allowed to rehire positions," she said.
That, said Littlejohn, is as it should be.
"We should make ourselves available to the public," she added, "because that's who we're here for."
State Court Administrator David Boyd wrote in a statement to the public that "the Legislature and governor have provided us with the resources we need to focus on delivering accessible, timely and high-quality justice."
Another change for the newly increased judicial budget will be noticed by all court users: fewer postponements of court dates due to the unavailability of a court reporter. This year's budget includes the addition of 13 more of them statewide.
"The layoffs slowed justice down and reduced service for people in critical need of it," said Scieszinski. "[Rehiring] will help judges (and by extension the folks we serve) tremendously to have some of our court-reporter services restored. Just by way of example, I'm without court-reporter help at least one day a week since the budget-driven layoffs. The reason it makes such a difference, is that ... I do what my help would normally do ... which then prevents me from being able to do what I was appointed to do, which is rule on cases. The new funding and re-hiring will solve some of the problem."
— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark