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Hillsborough

County Clerk of Court Hillsborough

Seeking new blood: The retirement of longtime clerk Richard Ake draws a crowded field of candidates.

By GRAHAM BRINK
Published August 24, 2004

The last time the race for Hillsborough Clerk of Court did not include an incumbent, Dwight Eisenhower was president and gas cost 29 cents a gallon.

That might explain the crowded field in the race to replace longtime clerk Richard Ake, who has decided to retire.

Five candidates qualified to run for clerk - Democrats Pat Frank and Helene Marks and Republicans Steve Hall, Chris Hart and Bob Zegota. They each bring years of experience in their respective fields.

Both parties pick their candidates in the Aug. 31 primary. The two winners face each other in the Nov. 2 general election.

Zegota has aggressively championed his outsider status. He is neither a career politician, as he paints Frank and Hart, nor a career bureaucrat, his description of Marks and Hall. On the campaign trail, he constantly reminds listeners that he is a businessman, and that the Clerk's Office needs a customer service overhaul.

"In business, you have to treat the customer right," Zegota said.

Zegota has also made an issue of being the only candidate who says he will be taking a pay cut if he gets the job.

While Zegota's $154,000 salary was the highest among the candidates last year, he ranks only fourth in net worth, according to financial disclosures. Marks, Frank and Hart all listed their net worths between $1.1-million and $1.4-million, compared with Zegota's $708,505.

"He brings up the money thing all the time," Hart said. "But really, I think the candidates in this race are in it for public service, not for the money. ... There are easier ways to make money."

Hart, too, sees the Clerk's Office lacking in customer service. The office is too wedded to the old paper system and needs more technological updates, he said. He promised, if elected, to publicly tell residents the standard of service they should expect from the Clerk's Office and let them hold him accountable if those standards are not met.

"Wouldn't it be nice to have someone actually look you in the eye, ask "How can I help you?' and actually take you to where you need to go," Hart said.

Hall is a longtime administrator with the Administrative Office of the Courts, which works closely with the Clerk's Office. He has said that the Clerk's Office runs on "19th century technology."

Another challenge will be the scheduled retirement of much of Ake's senior staff. Hall sees the turnover as an opportunity to retire "turf conscious policies" fostered over the past several years. He would also like to see the Clerk's Office aggressively go after $15-million in unpaid fees, fines and court costs.

"I know there are collections companies willing to do the work," Hall said.

Marks, the clerk's legal counsel, is the only candidate who has worked in the office. She is also Ake's choice as a replacement. Marks said none of the other candidates can step into the role with the same breadth of understanding, especially given the newly implemented funding requirements set by the Legislature.

"You really don't know the complexities of the office until you are in that organization actually doing it," she said. "I've been doing it for eight years."

Marks said her job would not be to "maintain the status quo." She wants to see continued improvement, especially in technology and public access to records.

"It's important to know the context of where the office was and where it is now, to know where it should be going," she said.

Frank has more political experience than the rest of the candidates combined. She has been a state representative and senator, a School Board member and a county commissioner. Frank said the experiences would be invaluable in the role of clerk, particularly in coordinating efforts among many different elected and appointed officers the clerk routinely deals with.

Frank, too, believes the office needs to maximize its use of technology. And at some point, when residents call the office, they should be able to speak with a person. She would also like to see a more efficient system for collecting unpaid fees, fines and costs, like one the county adopted.

"The clerk should do the same," Frank said. "Emphasize the simple tools before moving on to the next step of hiring a collections agency."

REPUBLICANS

STEVE HALL, 57, worked for the Administrative Office of the Courts from 1978 to earlier this year when he resigned to run for clerk. He has a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's in public administration, both from the University of South Florida. He is married and has two grown children. ASSETS: Home, property, stocks. LIABILITIES: Mortgage, auto loan. INCOME: Salary, rental property. E-MAIL: hallforclerk@hotmail.com WEB SITE: www.hallforclerk.com

CHRIS HART, 59, was a county commissioner from 1994 to 2002. He previously worked as a banker. Born in Columbia, S.C., Hart graduated from Plant High School in 1962 and received a business management degree from the University of Tampa. He served in the Army from 1968 to 1988. He has been involved on various transportation-related county boards, including the Hillsborough Aviation Authority and the Transportation Disadvantaged Coordinating Board. He is married and has one grown son. ASSETS: Home, condominium, mutual funds, stocks, life insurance. LIABILITIES: Mortgages. INCOME: Salary. E-MAIL: hartforclerk04@verizon.com WEB SITE: www.hartforclerk.com

BOB ZEGOTA, 56, is an independent contractor with the real estate services company Grubb & Ellis. He has worked in commercial real estate for 25 years. Before that, he was a sales and general manager for recreational vehicle and mobile home companies. He is married and has three children. ASSETS: Home, stocks, IRAs, checking account, rental property. LIABILITIES: Auto loans. INCOME: Sales commissions, rental property. E-MAIL: zegotaforclerk@mindspring.com WEB SITE: www.zegotaforclerk.com

DEMOCRATS

PAT FRANK, 74, has served on the Hillsborough Commission for six years. She served in the state Senate for 10 years ending in 1988 and in the state House of Representatives for two years ending in 1978 and before that was a member of the Hillsborough School Board for four years. She ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives in 1988 and 1996, respectively. In 1951, she became the first woman to attend Georgetown University School of Law. She is married and has three daughters . ASSETS: Home, property, stocks, money market account. LIABILITIES: Mortgage. INCOME: Commission salary, investment interest, rental property, Social Security. WEB SITE: www.votepatfrank.com

HELENE MARKS, 51, is a lawyer and has worked as legal counsel for the Clerk's Office for eight years. She worked as a schoolteacher for several years and then as a homemaker before attending the Stetson University College of Law. She is married and has two grown daughters. ASSETS: Home, townhouses, property, money market account. LIABILITIES: Mortgages, line of credit. INCOME: Salary, rental property. E-MAIL: helene@helenemarksforclerk.com WEB SITE: www.helenemarksforclerk.com

THE JOB

The Clerk of Circuit Court is the chief financial officer for the county, responsible for tracking and investing more than $1-billion in annual collections. The clerk maintains records of the County Commission and the 13th Judicial Circuit courts. The clerk also supervises a department of internal audit. The office has about 830 employees and a budget of $50-million. The clerk serves a four-year term, and earns an annual salary of $139,351.

[Last modified August 23, 2004, 16:50:00]

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