A few questions for Pat O’Brien, Pulaski County Circuit Clerk.
HL: Why did you want to be elected Pulaski County Clerk?
PO: In 2002, I was running a political campaign for a friend in Jacksonville. My candidate got hosed because of issues with the voter registration lists (her neighbors were told they had to vote in Little Rock). I got mad and decided to do something about it.
HL: What surprised you the most once you were in office?
PO: The biggest surprise was having to battle the county administration for no-brainer things like purchasing marriage license printers. Nothing in county government gets done fast. Ever.
HL: There is an ongoing dispute as to whether the Pulaski County budget must be less than revenue projections. Could you explain the issue some and what are your thoughts on it?
PO: The county budget is complicated. There is a state law which says counties must budget at 90% of their expected revenues. There are special revenues and general revenues. There has really not been an issue with special revenues. However, the general revenue projections made by county administration were based on voodoo economics. It is clear by looking at the jail budget that the rising expenses in that one area have strained all county general revenues. According to the records, in 1993, the county jail cost $5,000,000.00 per year to operate accounted for 23% of the general revenue expenditures of the county. In 2005, those numbers had risen to $22,000,000.00 and 41%. Cuts were made in 2005 but the jail budget is still $19,000,000.00 or so.
In short, the cities arrest and the county pays. In my opinion, though, this leads to less accountability because there is little incentive for the cities to prevent crime by utilizing long term solutions.
We need some leadership on this issue. I am still waiting. The UALR task force report called for monthly elected officials meetings beginning in August but that has not happened yet.
HL: Do you think your employees have a right to privacy as to sexually explicit e-mails or pornography on county computers?
PO: No. There is no right to privacy for such a thing on a county computer. During my first month in office, we adopted an e-mail and internet policy which covers this situation and employees must agree to as a term of employment. It states: “All County e-mail is subject to the Freedom of Information Act.” In fact, we have disciplined people for violations of this policy. We are not Big Brother but when something is brought to our attention we act.
I will say that there might be a very narrow right to privacy for social security numbers, home addresses and that sort of thing. We would probably ask to redact that information. Any right of privacy, though, is narrower than what has been argued in the Quillin case. The best way to handle this is to properly supervise your employees.
HL: Explain your role and responsibility as to the election process in the County.
PO: Under the law, the county clerk is charged with registering people to vote, maintaining an accurate voter database and handling absentee balloting. The election commission is a separate legal entity that hires poll workers, picks polling locations and chooses voting equipment.
HL: What are your thoughts on the use of electronic voting machines?
PO: I believe that these machines can be an important part of the process. However, the companies that make them have brought a lot of skepticism upon themselves through poor implementation and even worse public relations. If used correctly, the machines can be a positive. I am not passionate about keeping the machines but it might be premature to throw them out with the bath water.
HL: How has your budget changed (up or down) since you have taken office? What do you think is an appropriate budget in the near future?
PO: The biggest change in the Clerk’s office budget since my tenure began has been an increased amount of money being spent on technology. Let me give one example: Pulaski County has real estate and court records since the beginning of the county’s existence that are on paper or microfilm. If a tornado, fire or other disaster hit our storage facility these records might be lost forever. We are now contracting with private vendors to digitize these documents and place them on computer servers. This will take years to complete and millions of dollars but it needs to be done.
As for hard facts, we have cut a couple of positions and generally kept costs in line with 2005 levels. However, the 2007 legislature approved an increase in recording fees that will allow us to spend money on the items mentioned above to further technological goals.
HL: What are some similarities and differences in managing your staff and several McDonald’s restaurants?
PO: The biggest similarity is that I am dealing with human beings. Most people have similar needs. They earn money to pay for essentials and a few luxuries. I am better manager when I am dealing with motivated and ambitious people. However, I have also learned how to motivate and encourage ambition that people did not realize they have. My management philosophy is to firm, but fair. I also believe if you give people opportunity the cream will rise to the top.
HL: Have you done any studies of employee turnover or morale?
PO: Yes, we track those stats in a number of ways. Our annual turnover rate is around 23% now. It is my understanding that several years ago under the previous administration the turnover rate was as high as 80% on annual basis. I would like to get down to 15% to 20% but it may not happen. As for morale, we use a system based on the Q12. There are books written about the Q12, but, in short, it is a measurement of employee engagement and productivity. Our Q12 scores are solid but could be improved.
Finally, morale can be difficult to analyze. We do exit interviews. A majority of our people leave for a higher paying job. However, some leave because they believe our rules are too strict or we are too demanding of them. Those people tend to leave for jobs they view as more laid back. Working for the government should not mean receiving a free ride. I want hard-working ambitious people working for me.
HL: I haven’t seen your name being floated for County Judge, where do you go from here politically?
PO: I am not running for County Judge. I am running for re-election. The voters are my boss. I figure that if I do a good job handling their needs then opportunities will arise in the future. I don’t have any specific plans but I enjoy public service. However, I could easily see myself returning to the private sector after one more term.
And for some less serious questions ( I’m a blogger, not a journalist remember )
HL: Will you help me marry my 14 year old girlfriend tomorrow? Why not?
PO: I won’t issue you a marriage license but I will get you an appointment with the prosecuting attorney. The marriage law statutes in Arkansas are antiquated and conflicting. Now that there has been attention on this subject, we have an opportunity to update these laws in 2009.
HL: Are you wearing clean underwear today?
PO: Yes, I have everyday since the policy was enacted.
The purpose of the dress code was to present a sharp and professional image of our office to the general public. We have accomplished that goal. I just hope it never overshadows the accomplishments our team has made in cleaning up the voter rolls and bringing technology to the courthouse.
I really appreciate Pat for humoring me and agreeing to this online “interview.” If you have any suggestions for my next interview or questions you think I should ask someone — drop me a note.
hoglawyer at gmail dot com