Meet St. Joseph County Clerk Candidate Terri Rethlake

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The South Bend Voice is publishing a series of articles on local candidates running for county offices this fall. We believe that it is vitally important for voters to be informed before they head to the ballot box on November 4.

While we do not endorse individual candidates, we will provide the equal opportunity for candidates to share their views with the public through a short statement and questionnaire.

The statement is a concise explanation of a candidate’s experience, priorities if elected, and why they would make the best choice for voters.

Both the candidate statement and response to our questionnaires are being published verbatim. No alterations have been made — even for spelling and grammar. We believe that our job is to ask the tough questions and candidates’ responsibility is to speak directly to voters.

With that said, let’s introduce incumbent Terri Rethlake, the Democratic nominee for St. Joseph County Clerk. Republican candidate Aaron Troutmiller was provided the opportunity to participate but did not respond to our request.

Quick Facts

Full Name: Terri J. Rethlake
Current Job Title: St. Joseph County Circuit Court Clerk
College Major: 1979 BS Secondary Education, US History Major; 1989 Paralegal Certification
University Alma Mater: IUSB
Experience in Elected Office: County Clerk: 2010-Present, County Recorder: 1999-2008

Candidate Statement

I have served the citizens of St. Joseph County for 34 years. I began in the County Clerk’s office in 1980 as a Traffic & Misdemeanor Clerk in the Mishawaka Division. I learned all aspects of the Clerk’s office when a full time Superior Court began there in August 1980. My jobs included Traffic & Misdemeanor, Small Claims, collecting Child Support, filing Superior court civil and estate cases. I also worked as the Appeals Clerk. I worked my way up to Fiscal Officer in Mishawaka to Chief Deputy of that division. In 1999, I was elected County Recorder and served in that office until 2010.

In my first term as County Clerk, I guided the civil and criminal divisions of the office transfer to a new computer system. Among its features is the ability to look at the status of each case online through the Internet.

In partnership with the County Recorder’s Office I had old paper State Tax Liens from 1992 – 2008 digitized and their electronic index downloaded into their software system for easy searching and retrieval of the document and its release.

In the last three years, I have returned to the County General Fund any unused monies appropriated for the Clerk’s budget.

My bookkeeping staff has spent countless hours researching bookkeeping errors from the past four years and fixing them with the help of the State Board of Accounts auditors.

I have lobbied for and against proposed court and election legislation that directly affects the citizens of St. Joseph County.

Beginning January 2, 2015 on-line marriage applications will begin. Applicants will be able to begin their application on their computer at home and come to the office to finish the process and receive their license. Those who do not have a computer will be able to use a computer at the Clerk’s offices. I also want to digitize and download the library’s indexes of the marriage licenses recorded in St. Joseph County for easier, faster retrieval of the documents for records requests. A digital archive of the Record of Judgments and Orders for faster retrieval of these documents for records requests is also something I would like to begin.

I look forward to serving the citizens of St. Joseph County another term and making government work for you.

Candidate Questionnaire

St. Joseph County is moving forward with vote centers, which will reduce the number of voting locations from around 150 to 40. Instead of voting at designated locations, voters will be able to vote at any vote center, including a number of early voting sites. Do you have concerns about the effects that the reduction in polling places will have on low income voters? Do you support the overall vote center plan?

I think we should always be open to modernization ideas and how to do things more efficiently, but ensuring that everyone has the right to free, fair, and accessible elections must be protected at all times. This plan to move forward with Vote Centers is not final as of yet as we are entering the most important stage which includes opening the plan up for public comments as well as reviewing the proposed budget. It is only fair that we have done our due diligence in exploring this option for our County and are excited to hear what the public thinks of this plan. There are also budgetary concerns. Generally speaking, I don’t believe that our elections should ever be a target for budget cuts as it should be protected as one of our most sacred institutions. In the end, I will only support a plan to radically change our voting system if it makes sense to all those involved, and that most importantly includes the voters and citizens of our county. If the budget doesn’t make sense and the public isn’t on board, then I think we should seriously re-evaluate the idea.

There was an issue earlier this year with the county’s balance sheet. An audit from the State Board of Accounts found that there was more cash across the county’s bank accounts than what was recorded. No money was missing but the issue of an inaccurate account balance is a concern for voters. What would you do to prevent future mistakes?

First of all the County Clerk’s Office has separate bank accounts from the other offices in the County. This issue presented itself due to an antiquated computer system the office has been using for 20+ years. Believe it or not, it was based on DOS which is an incredibly outdated system. The problem with this old system is that we cannot print a report for outstanding Trust balances to reconcile with our bank accounts. The new software allows for much more streamlined, efficient, and user friendly services and operations in the office. However, the old financial information was not converted to the new system by the State. Many of these transactions date back 20 years. I have dedicated staff to address this issue which involves going through court cases one at a time in the old computer system and determining their inclusion status in the new system. If they find one that is not included, they then add it. Staff members have had to be responsible for this effort in addition to their usual daily duties. Therefore, this will unfortunately take time to fully reconcile. I am proud of my staff’s work and efforts on this progress and am confident that this issue will be completely resolved in the future. I have worked hand in hand with the State Board of Accounts on this situation, who can confirm that no money is missing.

The race for county clerk has been particularly negative. The Republican candidate has accused the Democratic incumbent of neglecting her duties as clerk and of public corruption. Do you believe that these claims have any merit?

Absolutely not. I am a big believer in transparency and my office has nothing to hide. In these past few weeks, I have been contacted by numerous individuals including well respected Republicans, offering their support to me and condemning my opponent’s smear tactics. I believe the Republican candidate is acting in an immature and defensive manner because he has little else to talk about due to his own lack of experience. He has no experience in the Circuit Court system and has never even voted in an election before. It is hard to imagine the voters trusting an individual to be the head administrator of their Circuit, Superior & Probates Court and Election systems when he lacks even the most basic experience for the role. Frankly, I do not believe he even truly understands the role and daily duties of the County Clerk or the office itself. For my own part, I refuse to respond with any more negativity as I believe our community deserves better than that and I stand by the accomplishments of my office in these past 4 years.

What would your top priorities be as the next county clerk?

One of my top priorities is to complete the reconciliation between the old paper & computer record files and our new computer system through the coordination and guidance of the State Board of Accounts. My staff has made great progress on this effort and I expect we will be able to complete this transition during my second and final term. I also plan to work on digitizing and downloading the library’s indexes of the marriage licenses recorded in the county for easier, faster retrieval of documents for records requests. In addition, I plan to work on the creation of a digital archive for the Record of Judgments and Orders for faster retrievals of these documents. Finally, in these tough budget times, I think another priority will be to continue keeping my office under budget as I have done for the past three years.

Why should voters support your candidacy?

This election comes down to two things; experience and integrity. Voters should support my candidacy because there are few people in our county that know, understand, and have the experience I have in our Court System, the Election process, and the daily duties of the County Clerk. I believe I have served the taxpayers well in this role and with the integrity that they deserve. My office, like any other, has had bumps along the road but I have hit those challenges head on and guided them to resolution or a plan of resolution. I expect that there will be more challenges in the future, but the office of County Clerk needs experience and integrity to meet and overcome those challenges. I have been proud to work toward my vision of making local government work for the citizens of our county. I continue to strive toward that vision in my next four years.

We would like to thank the candidate for taking the time to respond to our questionnaire. Click here to learn more about St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s race. Click here to learn more about the St. Joseph County Auditor race. Be sure to vote on Tuesday, November 4.

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