Technology could prove edge in first clerk election since 79

Technology could prove edge in first clerk election since 79

Circuit Court Clerk Ed Semonian has been on the job for more than 30 years, but challenger Chris Marston entered the contest last week in hopes of sharpening the offices technological edge.

Marston is Semonians first opponent for the elected position since he won the post in 1979. Though Marston is a Republican and Semonian a Democrat, the job is not partisan, even if the November 8 election is. 

Rather, the clerk acts as the administrative arm of the circuit court system: maintaining criminal and land records, issuing marriage licenses and swearing in the city council are just a few of the posts myriad responsibilities. 

Marston thinks technology can streamline them.

People hate the DMV so much less than they did 10 years ago because you can do so much online, said Marston, who filed just before the deadline to run against Semonian. And thats the kind of thing the government needs to be focusing on. It needs to make it easy for citizens to interact with their government and deliver those kinds of services in the way that people need to receive them, when they need to receive them.

Marston wants all criminal and land records to be available remotely online and other services to follow suit, he said. Yet he wants to improve the human-to-human interaction at the courthouse post as well, referring to the clerks office as a really big customer service organization.

Formerly assistant secretary for management at the U.S. Department of Education a Senate-confirmed position Marston is banking on his human resources experience and his work managing records and information. He also served on the board of the Library of Virginia, which manages the circuit court records preservation program, from 1998 to 2006.

He relished the management responsibility but believes the office does not do enough to keep up with the times or keep people connected to government, Marston said.

I think government is falling a little bit behind the private sector in delivering services, he said. When youre banking, you can go to the bank, talk to the teller, go to the ATM, talk to a private banker. You can use their website theres an app for that, as it were.

Semonian, who oversees 21 employees, said the clerks office is very technologically advanced, citing the digitizing system that maintains records internally. A leader of the paperless movement in the late 90s, he admits any system can be improved with technology if the money is there and said he strives to improve his office resources.

You have to pay for these things and this is not an era when theres an unlimited amount of money, Semonian said. The city gives us enough funding for doing the necessary things. We have funds to function and continue to do what we need to do but theres not a whole lot of funds to do new things.

The veteran of the post isnt worried about keeping his position. His experience should speak for itself, he said.

You run on your record. Ive been here 32 years, have had an excellent rapport with citizens and professionals, he said. We provide above-average service and thats what people tell me.

Virginias court clerks had access to a technology fund earlier this decade, but it has since been depleted, according to Frank Hargrove, president of the Virginia Court Clerks Association. The state took money from it to use for more pressing matters, he said. 

That doesnt mean clerks are giving up. Advancing the systems digital presence aligns with the constitutional offices mantra that a government closest to the people serves best, Hargrove said.

[Technology] has definitely improved the ability to serve our public, he said. Its not always beneficial for the first jurisdiction that implements it, but once its proven, youll see it succeed.