A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

AOC consultants stepped in to help with serious backlog at Kenton County Circuit Clerk’s office

By Judy Clabes
NKyTribune editor

A mass exodus of key staff in the Kenton County Circuit Court Clerk’s office over the last few months further stressed a system already near a breaking point.

The office got so backed up on its work that the Administrative Office of the Court sent in five consultants for a month, at the request of Clerk John Middleton, to help clean up the backlog.

The AOC reported that the workload was 15-45 days behind and said there was “insufficient staff to complete daily work.”

Experienced staff – five deputy clerks – walked away from their jobs in July and August and another two left in September. One was a supervisor. Others have left since then. This was a significant loss of “institutional knowledge,” said the AOC exit report.

The NKyTribune obtained the AOC’s report through an open records request to the Court of Justice and spoke extensively with Laurie Dudgeon, director of the AOC, to understand the scope of work of circuit court clerks and the importance of keeping the courts records current and accessible.

Some of the staffers who left – and some who still work there for now — have talked to the NKyTribune on the condition that their names not be used. They have taken or are seeking other positions in government and fear retribution.

Middleton, who says he is trying to institute “a professional office environment” in the clerk’s office, says problems started with the COVID shutdown which triggered a hiring freeze and have been made worse by the “very difficult hiring climate.”

The litany of the staffers’ complaints starts with pay. Their base pay, set by the state Court of Justice and driven by a budget the Chief Justice has often said is inadequate, is around $25,000. But a change in pay policy now allows new employees to be hired in at a higher level if they meet certain education requirements and have certain qualifying experiences outside the court system. When Middleton, whose salary is $110,198, determined he’d have to pay at the higher level, that meant his experienced clerks would be training people making more money than they did.

That triggered the exodus.

Kenton County Circuit Court Clerk John Middleton

As a group their complaints are consistent: They say Middleton can’t train anyone because he doesn’t know how to do any of the jobs his clerks do; they complain of poor management, his absenteeism, bullying and threatening, and general disinterest in their welfare.

Middleton says that he is “hurt” by these sentiments and that, even as President of the state’s Clerk Association, he has long been an advocate for better pay for staffers. He said he did ask people to respect the “chain of command” and to come to him with their complaints rather than try to go around him.

“I continue to work to get the salaries the deputy clerks deserve,” he said.

He says it isn’t necessary for him to know how to do the various jobs his office is responsible for – his job is to manage the staff, hire good people and manage the budget he’s given.

Middleton has served as Circuit Court Clerk – an elected position in Kentucky – since 2006.

The state describes the job this way: Circuit court clerks are responsible for managing the records of Circuit and District courts, Kentucky’s trial courts. Circuit court clerks receive lawsuits and court documents, record legal documents, provide legal documents and other legal materials, are present during trials, schedule juries, receive and disburse money, maintain the jury system, administer oaths, handle affidavits, and issue driver licenses and non-driver identification cards. One circuit court clerk is elected in each Kentucky county. They serve for a term of six years.

The Kenton office serves the Circuit, District, and Family courts. It currently has 43 full-time and five part-time employees – and needs at least seven additional staff members. Duties include managing and maintaining the courts’ records, recording and logging all court proceedings, receiving and dispensing monies. Clerks are assigned courtroom responsibilities as well as office duties, like processing orders and court documents. Counter work is shared. The records to be kept and data to be entered and papers to be processed – all keep the courts working efficiently.

The Kenton County caseload in 2020 was 26,500 cases.

When the AOC consultants left after a month in the office, they reported this workload:

AOC – 15,060 entries
KC staff – 26,961 entries.

AOC declared the work “caught up” when they left on September 9. But the challenge remains to keep it caught up with an inexperienced staff – and continued and growing vacancies.

The AOC report noted that one deputy started on Sept. 1 but never returned; two others accepted positions but rescinded; one of two new deputies resigned after less than two weeks on the job.

Middleton said he has never seen a tougher hiring environment. He has interviewed more than 20 people and he has been promoting the job openings aggressively. “We have to get people to come in – and we have to keep them.”

But just attracting a critical mass of applicants is not happening.

“Nobody has any idea what we’re doing,” said one staffer, who has since resigned. “The workload just keeps piling up. What used to be done in a day now takes a month. I worry about mistrials . . .(Middleton) is around a lot more, but he can’t do the work.”

Middleton says he believes he puts in an “adequate” amount of time on the job, and if he isn’t in the office that doesn’t mean he isn’t working. And he insists he shouldn’t have to know how to do the work of the clerks who answer to him.

A number of the disgruntled employees say Middleton describes himself as “a political clerk and not a working clerk,” but he said he does not recall ever using that language.

“I do pitch in,” he said, noting that he was time-stamping documents as he spoke and that he was still there after the office was closed.

Middleton says the office is doing the best it can to keep up with the workload but that filling vacancies is a priority.

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