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Published: Monday, 10/20/2003

Hopefuls stake out clerk of court goals

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

Two candidates making their first runs for public office are competing for the job of clerk of Toledo Municipal Court in the Nov. 4 election.

Republican Theresa Gabriel, who was appointed to the job in January, is challenged by Democrat Vallie Bowman-English.

Before accepting the appointment as clerk, Ms. Gabriel, 66, worked for nearly 40 years in various capacities for the city of Toledo, rising to a top position. She resigned as director of Toledo's Department of Parks, Recreation, and Forestry in December.

Ms. Bowman-English, 33, began her legal career with the Lucas County prosecutor's office seven years ago.

Ms. Gabriel touts her experience as an administrator. Ms. Bowman-English contends the clerk should be someone with legal training.

The candidates are running to fill the unexpired term of former Clerk Maggie Thurber, who left after winning a seat on the Lucas County board of commissioners in last year's election.

The clerk maintains the official court record for the Toledo Municipal Court, which serves Toledo, Ottawa Hills, and Washington Township, and collects money from fines, court costs, and forfeitures, among other things.

The winner of the clerk's seat will receive an annual salary of $85,935 and will hold the seat through the end of 2007.

Ms. Gabriel began her career with the city as a clerk in the civil service department in March, 1963, she said. She was promoted to various posts over the years, eventually winning appointment as commissioner of the Division of Streets Bridges, and Harbor. She was then promoted to director of the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Forestry before stepping down late last year.

She accepted appointment as clerk three weeks later.

Since then, Ms. Gabriel said she has worked hard to improve working relationships with the judges on the bench, most of whom are Democrats.

“My presence has made a tremendous difference in municipal court. The first thing I did was call a staff meeting to explain the rules. I treat everybody the same,” Ms. Gabriel said. “We have been able to work as a team, and that is important.”

Tardiness and absenteeism are down in the office, she said.

Ms. Gabriel said she is most proud of two initiatives instituted in the nine months she has been in office. At her urging, the court gave those with fines owed to the city a “last chance” amnesty for one week in April to clear up outstanding fines before they became subject to a “warrant block” that prevents motorists from registering cars or renewing drivers licenses until old fines imposed anywhere in the state are paid.

The amnesty program netted nearly $90,000 for the city, she said.

“Looking at the records and seeing how much money is sitting out there waiting to be collected, it is amazing,” Ms. Gabriel said.

Ms. Gabriel also has landed a federal grant worth $750,000 to pay for a program to scan into a central computer system records from local domestic violence cases. Law enforcement agencies in 12 surrounding counties then will be able to access the records at a moment's notice, even while on a call in the field. Ms. Gabriel said this will help officers make informed decisions on the spot about how to handle those cases.

Ms. Bowman-English began practicing law in 1996, joining the Lucas County prosecutor's office. She is an assistant prosecutor in the adult criminal felony division, handling serious cases in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.

She has staked her campaign on a call to upgrade the quality of the court record-keeping system in the clerk's office. To that end, she has said she would put a deputy clerk in every municipal courtroom to record developments in cases as they happen. This, she contends, would update the official record of cases at the very moment judicial rulings were announced from the bench.

Ms. Gabriel said she believes that would be a waste of manpower, because developments in cases are entered into the computerized record within 24 hours.

Ms. Bowman-English has criticized Ms. Gabriel over two cases in Toledo Municipal Court - one from 1997 and the other from 1998 - as evidence that the court record is poorly kept.

The clerk counters that the records were handled properly and that Ms. Bowman-English has not interpreted them accurately. She said even if there were a problem with the court records in the cases, it would be immaterial in this election because both were resolved years before Ms. Gabriel was associated with the clerk's office.

“To say that I am responsible for these two cases shows her lack of knowledge of what goes on” in the clerk's office, Ms. Gabriel said.

Ms. Bowman-English said old records from Toledo Municipal Court are sometimes hard for county prosecutors to interpret in court settings, and that, as a result, attorneys representing defendants with past convictions in Toledo are sometimes able to cast doubt on their accuracy in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.

“There should be more cooperation between the [Toledo] court and the clerk to make sure the record is kept accurate. That way, there wouldn't be any second guessing,” she said.

Ms. Bowman-English said her training as a lawyer would help keep the court records more accurately. Ms. Gabriel contends that she understands the court system, and that her experience is the key to making the office run smoothly.

The election is Nov. 4.



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