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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Thursday, July 16, 2015

PJ Baratta: Civil and Criminal Divisions "Grossly Understaffed"

Hon. Stephen Baratta
A proposal to place Northampton County's row offices under the supervision of the courts was considered by Council's Courts and Corrections Committee yesterday. It's an idea that has been discussed for at least the past ten years. Though everyone agrees, nothing has happened. No action was taken yesterday, either.  

What are row offices? Historically, they were located in a row next to the courtrooms.  They often have strange sounding names like Prothonotary, Clerk of Quarter Sessions and Orphans' Court. Basically, they are where court papers are filed in civil and criminal matters. They are where people go when they get a marriage license, or open an estate for a deceased relative.

In addition to being a repository for court records, these offices serve another important function. Indices and other dockets provide notice to the world of the existence of liens, estates and other matters that have a direct impact on people and their lives.

In Northampton County, the row offices are called the Civil Division (Prothonotary), Criminal Division (Clerk of Courts) and Orphans Court. The department heads report to a Director of Court Services, a cabinet position set up in the Home Rule Charter. But basically, they are an arm of the court. Mat Benol invited President Judge Stephen Baratta about the possibility of taking control of these offices.

Judge Baratta believes "we could run the offices," but told Council that the courts would want control over the hiring process.

Noting there are currently six vacancies in the Civil Division, including one that goes back to October, he called the office "grossly understaffed," and warned that there are problems created by a delay in indexing judgments.

In the Criminal Division, where five of 13 positions are vacant, Judge Baratta said Things are "even worse."  

John Brown agrees that courts should take over
row offices in time. 
He explained that recently, Judge Leonard Zito directed a first offender program to pay $1,200 in outstanding court costs as a condition of probation, but was informed by a clerk that the office was "closed" because every staffer was in a courtroom. Judge Zito had to adjourn so the Defendant could pay his costs.

Baratta stated there should be a baseline for hiring, and that once staffing goes below a certain level, hiring should commence immediately. He also is interested in cross-training clerks so they can all do at least some of the more routine work in each office.

Though Executive John Brown agrees that these offices belong under the courts' jurisdiction, he said that he is creating efficiencies in these offices through the use of technology, and has made "significant improvements in the backlog." He said he'd like to finish some of his work before turning the offices over to the courts.

Brown cited as an example the online civil index recently implemented. But that system incorrectly advised users that information was up-to-date, when it was in fact weeks behind. This kind of error, since corrected, could cost the County millions of dollars in liability for liens that it has failed to index properly.

Brown also mentioned the use of technology, although the state Supreme Court is currently working on technology that it intends to mandate in all 67 counties Brown spoke of the same data having to be entered repeatedly, without appreciating that redundancy is a necessary requirement in row offices, where the information posted about an individual must be accurate.

"With all due respect," Judge Baratta stated, "they're [the Brown administration] not involved in what the clerks do." In contrast, the judges are involved in the legal system, and understand the rules as well as the reason for them.
"We can offer our services if you need us," Judge Baratta concluded. "We're all public servants."

"Sounds like a deal you can't refuse coming from a President Judge," observed Bob Werner.


Anonymous said...

Hope council does not place any more offices under the Court's control. It is bad enough that such offices as Probation and Child Support are under the Court's directions but are also county employees. If they are under the Court's then they should be AOC employees with the same benefits and rules. Court Administration for example get paid by the State and not the county and have very nice health benefits, etc... Feel Court Administration should only work with the Courts (judges). They shouldn't control/supervise employees who are also county employees. The hire and fire at will for example applies with the Courts. Think morale may be bad now, wait. When more employees next year have more changes in health benefits and Court Administration doesn't, etc...

Anonymous said...

Isn't he one of the NorCo judges who regularly blew off afternoons? Remember the posts about no cars around after lunch? NorCo has a part time judiciary and they shouldn't get to hire any more money wasters.

Anonymous said...

baratta is obviously just a union flunky who doesn't care what this costs the taxpayers

Anonymous said...

Continued incompetence by the administration in not filling budgeted positions of a core function of county government, but this looks like a power grab by the judges. If row offices were elected and accountable these offices would be properly staffed.

Bernie O'Hare said...

The judges are willing to run those offices, but since one of the problems is Brown's refusal to fill vacancies, they need control. This is no "power" grab. If you want them run efficiently, the persons in a best position to do that are the courts. They did not propose this idea. It has been floating around for a long time before Brown became County Executive. I'd say at least the past ten years. Just about everyone agrees that the courts should be in control. So I hope Council does something. They do not need to change the HRC. They can simply amend the Admin Code and place those offices under the court administrator. Next time the HRC is changed, they can eliminate the Director of Court Services and perhaps even create a new cabinet position for emergency management.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"baratta is obviously just a union flunky who doesn't care what this costs the taxpayers"

If you want to anonymously attack someone, sign your name. My guess is that your real antipathy stems from the fact that Judge baratta may have rled against you in a few matters. He has ruled against me at times as well, but that's no reason to call him names.

As for him being a union flunky, the unions will lose control the moment these offices go under court control. At that point, every worker becomes at-will and will also be subjected to a code of judicial ethics.

A few years ago, there was in-fighting in Criminal that was impossible to resolve bc the employees are all protected. That problem goes away with the judges in charge.

Anonymous said...

Enough is enough! Just one excuse after another by the Clown administration. If these positions are so hard to recruit and retain, why weren't there similar vacancies in past administrations? Brown is just dragging his heels on these hires, coming up with one lame excuse after another. Baratta has been much too patient putting up with Brown's bullshit. He should court-order the filling of all vacancies within 60 days.

Anonymous said...

I think Angle promoted this once and it was righty called a silly idea.

Anonymous said...

Is it true that the courts have a different health care plan than the rest of the county? The judges have a separate plan? I hope that is not the case, because that does not seem fair. But I guess that is they way it goes, life is not fair. The haves and the have not.

Anonymous said...

@9:04PM, check out AOC of PA, benefits. Court Administration comes under the AOC not the offices they supervise.

Bernie O'Hare said...

These are state, and not county, employees.