Tension is mounting again between Yakima County Clerk Janelle Riddle and Superior Court judges.
On Tuesday, Judge David Elofson blasted Riddle for being so short-staffed that it’s causing court hearings to be delayed.
During a hearing initially scheduled an hour earlier, Elofson apologized to attorneys for the delay, explaining that two absent deputy clerks on Tuesday left two courtrooms without courtroom clerks. One deputy clerk called in sick; the other was out on a scheduled day off.
Elofson blamed Riddle for not making staffing adjustments for such events. Court hearings have been delayed six times this year due to a shortage of available deputy clerks, but Tuesday was the first time two hearings were delayed at one time.
“The idea that someone could call in sick and that would be an issue is frankly not sensible,” he told the attorneys. “It’s the clerk’s job to maintain adequate staff to make sure that all of the courtrooms would be covered.”
Partway into the hearing, Elofson abruptly recessed for another half-hour after learning that the fill-in court clerk, Valerie Knott, had failed to turn on the courtroom recording system. This was after he asked her to stop typing while he was addressing the court. She stopped for a moment, but began again. He requested another clerk.
“The expertise of the clerk is critical,” Elofson said. “Not all of these cases — but many of these cases — go up on appeal, and if the record is not maintained accurately, exhibits not handled precisely, we create appellate records that not only damage the lawyer’s ability to make presentations but damage the rights of clients.”
After the hearing, Knott said she was conducting other work when she was typing and that she’s not subject to Elofson’s orders because she’s not a courtroom employee.
As far as the court recording system, she said she pressed the start button but it didn’t come on for some reason. “That happens sometimes,” she said.
She also said that having to juggle schedules at the last minute to fill courtrooms is nothing new. She questioned why Elofson took issue with the matter during an unrelated hearing in front of attorneys.
“I’m wondering what his problem is — if he’s losing it — to go on a tirade like that,” she said.
Elofson said Riddle has lost seven deputy clerks over the past year and that her inability to replace them is straining the courts. She recently hired two new deputy clerks, one who began Tuesday and a second who’s expected to start later this week, said court consultant Harold Delia.
Tension has been brewing within the clerk’s office since Riddle took office last year. She attempted to scrap an agreement with the courts that allows deputy clerks to spend part of their time working as courtroom reporters. Then she rejected a new statewide electronic case management system for Superior Court that was in the works before she took office. Months later she accepted the new system to be installed in her office.
Deputy clerks concerned about having duties reassigned without notice or being fired voted to unionize last June.
Riddle didn’t immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
The shortage of deputy clerks is not all that is upsetting judges and court staff.
Elofson said he received emails from Riddle explaining that she intends to close the public window at the Juvenile Justice Center where fines are paid on an as-needed basis because of a staff shortage, and that she also will again try to pull her deputy clerks from serving as courtroom reporters, this time at the end of the year.
As court reporters, clerks simply turn on an automated recording system that replaced stenographers, saving the county about $400,000 a year.
Yakima County Commissioner Kevin Bouchey said Riddle’s move to scrap the agreement has county officials already looking at next year’s budget. He plans to further discuss the matter with Riddle and other county officials during a county Law and Justice Committee meeting later this month.
“We’ve got to start talking about that now, and see how that $400,000 plays out,” he said by phone Tuesday.