Candidates trade barbs

Published 8:19 pm Monday, May 5, 2014

WINDSOR – For only the third time since 1986 there are two names of the ballot for Clerk of Superior Court of Bertie County.

Following the abrupt retirement of long-time Clerk John C. Tyler in January of this year, Assistant Clerk Vasti James was sworn in as Clerk by the Hon. Superior Court Judge Cy Grant to fulfill Tyler’s unexpired term.

Only twice during Tyler’s 30 years did he face opposition in a general election.  One of those times his opponent was Magistrate Arthur J. Watford.

Watford is back seeking the office once more; he will be opposing James in the May 6 state primary.

Both candidates are lifelong residents of Bertie County.

James has worked in the Clerk’s office for 17 years after previously working for the county Sheriff’s Department, beginning as a Deputy Clerk in 1996. For the past eight years, prior to her January appointment, she was chief Assistant Clerk of Superior Court working closely with Tyler.

Watford worked previously with the Choanoke Area Development Association and as a zoning administrator in the town of Lewiston-Woodville. He has been magistrate for Bertie County District-6B for the past 30 years, and is now Chief Magistrate and area director of the state’s Magistrate Association.

At a political forum hosted by the Bertie County Democratic Party African American Caucus at Bertie Middle School, the two candidates promoted their respective platforms in an appeal to the voters present and to the ones who will choose in Tuesday’s primary.

James cited nearly two decades of work experience in the Clerk’s office and emphasized her qualifications.

“I have the ability, I have the skills, and I have the knowledge,” James said. “I have served in every division of the Clerk of Court and I know what it takes in order to run the Clerk of Court.  As an assistant I was able to have hearings: foreclosure hearings and competency hearings. I have the experience and I have the training. It is my desire to remain the Clerk of Court; let my experience, qualifications, and training work for you.”

Watford also spoke about his own prerequisites for the office.

“I feel I’m the best prepared and most qualified,” Watford said.  “As you know, our court systems are the most valuable resources that we have and we have a diligent responsibility to protect and preserve because the very basis of our democracy is built upon the courts.  The courts have the responsibility of playing the role of leveling the playground for each and every citizen; so we should embrace our system and bring the most qualified and best prepared people to protect and serve our courts.  But ultimately, no matter how good our laws are, they are no better than the people that we elect.”

During the question-and-answer period the candidates were asked what the greatest challenge to the Clerk’s office would be over the next four years.

James said the greatest difficulty in the undertaking would be in personnel.

“We are already under-staffed,” James said. “We’re going to have more work and there’s going to be more required so that means there’ll be more warrants; and I also have noticed – and this is not a challenge – but we have increased in foreclosures, which is a very bad situation.  So the greatest challenge will be working with what we have.  We’re understaffed and we know we’re not going to be able to hire anybody else because there’s pretty much a freeze; so that’s going to be the most challenging thing: trying to stay ahead.”

Watford spoke on understanding the role of the Clerk of Court.

“It’s basically an administrator for processing and distributing our justice system.  We work with a staff currently of seven, I believe, and we just lost one position when Mrs. James moved to her current position and I understand the state (of NC) will not be giving that back to us. But, as always, finding and training quality staff is always an issue,” he stated.

Watford also spoke on the status of the Bertie County Courthouse, which is undergoing a facelift thanks to recent contributions toward the facility’s physical rehabilitation.

“Workplace safety is one of the items I’m keen on,” he continued. “Everybody has a right to safety in the courthouse. Our courthouse is in disarray and in need of repair as anyone can see who has been there.  We have cashiers who handle money and sit within ten feet of a door with no security, there are panic buttons that don’t work, and judges are protected, but we need to do a better job of protecting the people who work there.  As far as the community, we will have video conferencing so everyone will have better access to the court system.”

The closing remarks were a bit more biting between the two candidates.

“I am qualified to serve as your Clerk of Court,” began James in her summation. “My opponent says he has the most experience and is uniquely qualified to lead; but I am qualified to serve.  My opponent may be a good magistrate, but we’re not running for the office of magistrate.  I’m running for the office of Clerk of Court, for which I have the ability, the knowledge, and training for this position.  I have the knowledge and training to work from the courtroom to the cash register and anything in between.”

“I’ve been there 17 years, 17 years proven experience,” said James. “Let my experience work for you.”

Watford’s close was just as pointed.

“I think it’s great that candidates have a platform to express their opinions, goals, and aspirations,” Watford began. “I feel without a doubt that I am the most qualified candidate because working where I do, you are the first responder to the legal system.  Coming in there you have to assess it, come up with a plan, implement it, and do it. When it gets to court you have all day, but you have to respond in rapid fashion.  My opponent says she’s worked from the cash register to the court; but for 17 of those years I’ve seen her working in the same office at the same desk doing the same thing the whole time.”

“She may know 20 percent of the job,” he declared.  “But 80 percent of the job she has no limited experience, and I can tell you that because I’ve been there before she got there.”