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Election 2004

Hopefuls tout goals for clerk of court

The candidates are billing themselves as men from two very different sides of the courthouse.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published October 25, 2004

They both served as altar boys in church. They graduated from Gulf High School in New Port Richey. They each have two children and a fondness for animals.

But as candidates in Pasco County's clerk of circuit court race, Jed Pittman and Robert Altman are billing themselves as men from two very different sides of the courthouse.

Pittman, the Republican incumbent, is running on his record from 28 years in office. His Democratic challenger says that record is lacking in technological advances, increased cooperation with other county offices and emphasis on customer service.

Voters will decide who wins the $122,457-a-year position on Nov. 2.

The competition is Pittman's first since the 1996 primary. He says Altman is part of a small group of probate and real estate lawyers in Pasco County who resent that the clerk's office reviews their new files to make sure they meet statutory requirements and lets judges know when they don't.

"That irks them," said Pittman, 62.

Altman, 48, tells a different story. When he first decided to run, he says, it was taking the clerk's office six weeks to open a probate file. In surrounding counties, lawyers were getting files opened in one week's time.

As he probed the issue, Altman said he also found delays in the processing of paperwork for guardianship and litigation cases.

The delays in probate were corrected after Altman announced his candidacy, said the private lawyer, who specializes in wills, trusts and estate law. Not so, he said, with his other complaints about the department, which keeps track of court records, officially recorded documents such as property deeds and the minutes of County Commission meetings.

Altman, the older brother of County Commissioner Peter Altman, contends the clerk of circuit court's office is rife with inefficiency.

Deputy clerks aren't allowed to fill in missing clerical information over the phone, so lawyers have to return to the courthouse and do it themselves. Pittman wouldn't make recorded deeds free on the Internet, so the property appraiser did instead. Turnover of experienced workers leads to duplication of efforts, Altman said.

Today's environment in the clerk's office is a far cry from the days when Altman used to accompany his lawyer father to bring the deputy clerks boxes of candy, a time when lawyers and clerks worked together, he said.

"I have a good picture of how it used to be done and how it could be done," he said during a recent interview at his New Port Richey law office.

Pittman isn't convinced. He doesn't think Altman, whose firm consists of two lawyers and four secretaries, can manage an office with 285 people, six locations and a $12-million budget.

His proof: As of Monday, Altman was delinquent on filing paperwork due for 13 of his 21 open probate cases.

"This is a big office," Pittman said. "I don't know if this guy can do that kind of work."

Altman notes that his firm has opened 80 total probate cases this year. He said the delinquencies mostly stem from the troublesome cases he takes on after other lawyers don't want to deal with them.

Many delays in probate cases occur no matter how diligent the lawyer is anyway. Attorney Rich Williams, who has opposed Altman in cases, and a former client of Altman's both said he handles cases in a timely and professional manner.

Altman also said his office had filed some of the so-called delinquent paperwork, but it evidently had not been processed by the clerk's office yet.

Bringing up this issue, Altman said, was "just a questionable thing for (Pittman) to do."

Clerk of circuit court since 1977, Pittman makes no apologies for being outspoken. Five years ago, he refused to join forces with other county offices looking to put their records on the Internet. His focus is serving the public, he says, but he does it his own way.

The year he took office, Pittman brought to Pasco a criminal justice computer system that allowed the offices of the state attorney, public defender and sheriff to input information into a shared database.

The system, run by the county, still is in place. Critics find it outdated and hard to master. Pittman said it's not his fault. He would love to modernize the technology, he said, but the county doesn't want to spend money on a new system.

His own efforts include adding a new option this month that allows residents to pay traffic tickets online and offering a Web-based system that lets subscribers view civil court dockets from their personal computers.

"I think we've accomplished an awful lot of things," said Pittman, once named Florida's Clerk of the Year. "I like to think that I'm a forward-thinking man."

But Pittman, who has received nearly five times the campaign contributions of Altman, hasn't yet met his promise of making more public records available for free online. He says he is working toward a system that will allow lawyers to file probate and guardianship paperwork via the Web but has run into privacy issue roadblocks.

Altman thinks those improvements are long overdue. The one-time chairman of the Odessa Rodeo would like to put a desk in the Tax Collector's Office so people could pay their traffic tickets there and avoid a trip to the courthouse.

He wants to give employees at all levels of the clerk of circuit court's office as much authority as possible and get their input on what changes are needed.

As a lawyer, he strives to do what's best for his client, he said. As clerk of circuit court, he would make sure the public got the best service possible.

"I think there is room for improved service," Altman said.

[Last modified October 25, 2004, 02:35:37]


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