Superior Court clerk candidates highlight passport fee/document backlog controversies during debate

Audience at Cobb Superior Court clerk candidate debate

Photos by Caleb Groves

By Caleb Groves

MARIETTA, Ga.– At Thursday’s forum, Cobb County Court Clerk Candidates debated over passport processing fees and how candidates plan to deal with the backlog at the clerk’s office.

The moderator, Michael McNeely, introduced and fielded prepared questions and questions from the estimated 100 audience members to the candidates.

Four of the five candidates attended, including Nick Simpson, former Cobb Superior Court Chief Operating Officer; Brunessa Drayton, who formerly worked for Chairwoman Lisa Cupid and for Senator Jon Ossoff; Deborah Dance, former Cobb Attorney and Planning Commissioner; and Carole Melton, Cobb County Court Bailiff. All of the candidates were invited; however, the incumbent Connie Taylor did not attend the forum.

Nick Simpson and Brunessa Drayton

Passport processing fee fund allocation

Every candidate supported the idea of investing passport fees elsewhere than in the pockets of the court clerk.

The incumbent, Taylor, reportedly pocketed $425,000 in fees, $84,000 of which Taylor pulled from expedited shipping fees, as reported by the Atlanta Journal Consitution.

Simpson criticized her use of passport fees, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Instead, he plans to pool that money back into the county general fund and improve technology in the clerk’s office.

“End the practice of collecting passport fees for income and redirecting those fees funds back to the county general fund, back to the taxpayers,” Simpson said.

Similarly, Melton would like to see investments back into the employees of the clerk’s office through incentives, bonuses and training from former employees, while allocating the remaining dollars back into the general fund.

Paramount to passport fees, were the clerk’s office backlog issues for Dance and Drayton. However, Dance did note her plans to invest passport fees toward the passport office for customer service improvements. Drayton intends to direct the funds toward technology and customer solutions.

“Audits need to happen across the board in the Superior Courts Clerk’s office and the curtain needs to be pulled back,” Dance said.

Senate Bill 19, awaiting Governor Brian Kemp’s signature, would mandate quarterly reports to the county of passport fees collected by the clerk’s office, Drayton said. She intends to comply with the bill.

Carole Melton and Deborah Dance

Document Backlog

A central concern for all the candidates at the forum was the document backlog. In December 2023, a Cobb judge posted on social media about their frustration regarding the document backlog.

To resolve this backlog, Drayton seeks to fully staff the office, assess the current document backlog and develop a plan to solve any issues.

Simpson plans to address the backlog through training and vetting talent and hiring based on merit rather than favoring nepotism. To recruit talent, he would like to advertise and improve the culture in the office from the top down.

“Candidly put, you need a new agency head; it starts at the top,” Simpson said.

Dance proposed the idea of office-wide audits to locate where shortcomings are in the office and utilize internal and external sources to find solutions and establish relationships within the courts between clerks, judges and attorneys.

“We also know that the backlog of records needs to be addressed,” Dance said. “So for me, I would establish goals and standards for how long it should take to have these records online, 55 days is unacceptable. It was 50 days last week; it is 55 days this week; who knows what it’ll be next week.”

Melton honed her answers at the forum, focusing on employee morale development and employee retention. She noted since 2020, 76 employees resigned, 11 retired and 19 have been terminated from the clerk’s office.

On Thursday, April 25, at 7 p.m., the Cobb District Attorney and State Court Judge Candidate Forum will take place at Zion Bapitist Church at 165 Lemon Street NE in Marietta.