Clerk of court election approaches

Clerk of court election approaches
The Alexandria Courthouse. (File Photo)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Ben Ortiz and Greg Parks will compete for the Democratic nomination for Alexandria’s clerk of court in the June 11 primary election.

The two candidates began campaigning for the office after Ed Semonian announced earlier this year that after 40 years as clerk of court, he would not seek reelection for his sixth eight-year term.

No Republicans have announced their intent to run for the position, according to the Alexandria Office of Voter Registration.

Semonian will finish out his final term in the courthouse, and the candidate elected in the November general election will take over in early 2020. The race for the position is in full swing, as Ortiz and Parks offer contrasting perspectives of what they want to bring to the office.

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Ben Ortiz

From the beginning of his campaign, Ben Ortiz has emphasized his 15 years of experience in the clerk’s office and the legacy that Semonian, his mentor, has left behind.

Ben Ortiz has worked at the Alexandria Circuit Court for 15 years. (Photo credit: Cody Mello-Klein)

“The tradition, the legacy that Mr. Semonian has established there, I wouldn’t change for the world,” Ortiz said.

Born in Manhattan, Ortiz and his family moved to Puerto Rico, his father’s home, when he was young. After completing his computer engineering degree at University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez, Ortiz moved back to the states to work at the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria.

The job wasn’t for him, Ortiz said, but it was educational, nonetheless.

“Being at the Patent Office, I loved the experience, but it really showed that I wanted to do something with people,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz saw a vague advertisement for a data entry clerk position at the Alexandria Circuit Court and, throwing caution to the wind, applied for the position. Ortiz got the job, and spent the next 15 years working his way through the office’s ranks. He held the positions of courtroom clerk and supervisor for the office’s public service division, before becoming the chief deputy clerk in July 2009.

Ortiz now works directly with Semonian, who endorsed him for the primary. Ortiz said he’s taken Semonian’s lessons about the importance of professionalism, patience, understanding and public service to heart.

Those qualities, as well as the context in which Ortiz learned them, are testaments to his experience and ability in the clerk’s office, Ortiz said. Scheduled one-hour appointments regularly become two-hour sessions with Ortiz, and it all goes back to one of the first lessons Semonian taught him.

“[Semonian] said, ‘Ben, I need you to listen to me very carefully. To you that’s a piece of paper. To someone else, that affects their life,’” Ortiz said.

That kind of care and consideration for public service remains at the heart of Ortiz’s life – and now his campaign – 15 years later, Ortiz said.

“I just want to help the people,” Ortiz said. “Alexandria is my home and I don’t want to have anything else coming between me and helping the public.”

Ortiz said that while he admires Semonian’s legacy, there is still room for improvement at the clerk’s office. The office’s dated technology – specifically the lack of an efficient, expansive e-filing system for the public – has been a key point of interest for voters. Ortiz acknowledges change is needed – in more ways than one.

The clerk’s office has an online database called AJIS that allows various judicial parties like the sheriff’s office and commonwealth’s attorney’s office to share documents. Semonian spearheaded the creation of the system in the early 2000s, the first system of its kind in Virginia.

Ortiz with representatives of first place Judges’ Award-winner Del Ray Pizzeria at Taste of Del Ray. (Photo credit: Cody Mello-Klein)

“In the time that I’ve been there, AJIS has been instrumental in terms of efficiency … but 15 years is a long time and as much as we try to match our system with the [state] Supreme Court system, it’s time to get something in that can take advantage of current technology,” Ortiz said. “That’s one of the main things that I would focus [on] and I’ve actually already started working on that.”

For two years, Ortiz has been working with the city manager’s office and the state Supreme Court to find resources and evaluate current technology in order to create a new system based on the state Supreme Court system that would include more extensive e-filing for the public.

The clerk’s office has a free online portal through which residents can access case information, but not documents themselves. The office’s main form of accessible e-filing – land records – remains locked behind fees. According to Ortiz, the fees are implemented by state-wide statutes. However, he said, change is possible if the fees negatively impact the public he serves.

“We have a clerk’s association and we always look at the statutes, the bills, the fee structure to see if there’s anything that we can revise and tell legislators, ‘Hey, why don’t we do this differently?’” Ortiz said.

Money isn’t the only barrier to access for residents, according to Ortiz. In an increasingly diverse city, primarily English forms can make things difficult for residents, Ortiz said. Ortiz, a Spanish speaker himself, said he helped create Spanish-language marriage licenses and a special form for deaf and mute residents during his time at the office.

“Things will continue to come up over time, changes, and we have to adapt,” Ortiz said. “That’s something I’m so good at because I moved from one place to another without knowing any single person here. I’m still here.”

Ortiz is keen on improving the office in limited ways, but he wants to make sure that the things he sees as strengths — the qualities Semonian instilled in the office — are maintained as well.

“It’s a balance,” Ortiz said. “I don’t want to forget or have anyone else forget what this office has been for the last 40 years, but at the same time I’m going to improve it where it needs to be improved. That would be my footprint.”

Greg Parks

At a young age, Greg Parks had a first-class education in the power of local politics.

His mother was president of the school board, ran for county clerk — the county equivalent of clerk of court — and even founded a local agriculture advocacy group called Women Involved in Farm Economics, or WIFE, at her kitchen table.

Parks has worked as an attorney at the federal level for the Coast Guard and Department of Transportation. He hopes to bring that experience to the clerk’s office, Parks said. (Courtesy photo)

Parks said his campaign for clerk of court is all about bringing his career, defined by experience at the federal level, back to that kitchen table.

“I think I can really bring it all back to where it started at my mother’s kitchen table of really helping Alexandrians, local citizens, have a direct impact on their lives,” Parks said.

After graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1988 with a degree in political science and history, Parks moved to D.C. to pursue his law degree at American University. Parks earned his Juris Doctorate degree in 1993.

Although Parks’ passion remained in local politics, his proximity to federal agencies led him down a different path, Parks said. He worked as an attorney for the Coast Guard, helping create safety regulations and environmental protections. From there, he moved to the Department of Transportation and then the General Services Administration where he worked as legislative director. He also served as chief counsel for the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals.

Parks moved to Alexandria with his husband David in 2013 and immediately got involved in local politics, serving on boards and committees and getting involved in the Alexandria Democratic Committee.

When Semonian announced he wouldn’t be running again, Parks realized the clerk’s office was exactly what he had been looking for.

“I came to the conclusion that my experience – my legal experience, my legal training, my experience as a manager – was a really good fit for this office, and it’s an office that also appeals to my public service sense,” Parks said.

Since announcing his candidacy, Parks has received endorsements from the mayor, every member of city council and the sheriff. For Parks, those connections are a starting point for improving the office and moving it forward.

“[I] have a starting place, if I get elected, to go and advocate for the clerk’s office and say, ‘Hey, here’s all the things this office does that really help the Alexandria citizens and here’s why these resources are needed to improve the service here,’” Parks said. “I have experience doing that very directly at the federal level.”

Since announcing his candidacy, Greg Parks, middle, has been endorsed by a number of local officials including every city councilor, the mayor, commonwealth’s attorney and sheriff. (Courtesy photo)

Parks’ campaign is defined by three central ideas, he said: modernization, citizen service and access to justice. Together, the three ideas form an improvement plan that Parks would seek to implement should he win the position.

Addressing the office’s technology, Parks said there is plenty of room for improvement.

“I think that this office needs to be modernized in terms of electronic filing,” Parks said at a May 28 debate.

Parks cited Arlington’s Project Paperless as a possible point of inspiration.

Citizen service, or customer service, is also central to Parks’ campaign. While researching the office, Parks learned just how much of an impact the office has on the public – and how much of a responsibility it bears.

“When I was doing the research, what I concluded was that there are so many places that the public touches this office, and what you really, really need is to have outstanding customer service,” Parks said. “By that, I mean when you come into that office and you need something, you need to have staff that are trained and motivated to give you outstanding service.”

The third pillar of Parks’ campaign – access to justice – is ambitious and, as Parks said, a long-term goal should he become clerk.

“I believe [the clerk’s office] has an obligation to be more than just an administrative functionary,” Parks said. “My vision for that is what I refer to as ‘access for justice.’ It’s finding ways that the incumbent in the position, if I’m elected, can help the public access the court system without regard to whether they have enough money, without regard to education, without regard to those kinds of things that are non-merit.”

As part of his vision, Parks would seek to join the Virginia Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission — the Arlington clerk is part of the organization — and look specifically at monitoring fee schedules, having aids and online portals that would allow residents to perform simple procedures, like uncontested divorces, without hiring an attorney and increasing multi-lingual documentation.

Parks believes advocating for the office at the local and state level are key to improving the clerk’s office. He touted his experience working for the GSA on Capitol Hill.

“I couldn’t possibly say that I know the internal workings of that office as well as my opponent,” Parks said. “… I think the job of the elected official is to be a leader, to be a high-level manager, to be someone who goes to city council, who goes to the state legislature and advocates for this office to get the resources it needs and who makes final decisions. I’ve done that at the federal level in organizations that are as complicated with much larger budgets than this.”

For Parks, the office — by virtue of being an elected position — is inherently political and carries with it a certain sense of responsibility. Part of his responsibility as clerk would be changing and improving an office that has been under the guidance of one man for 40 years, Parks said.

“I do hear stories that there are places where the office can improve. I don’t think that that in any way besmirches Mr. Semonian’s legacy,” Parks said. “You build on that by going in and taking a new look at things. … You don’t want the answer to any question to be ‘Because we’ve always done it that way.’”

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