Republican voters will decide Tuesday which candidate for municipal court clerk will help a new judge settle onto the bench after the departure of 30-year veteran Dale H. Chase in January.
The Gazette interviewed incumbent Nancy Abbott and challenger Tom Decker about how they would approach the office. Both candidates grew up in Parma Heights and graduated from Valley Forge High School.
No Democratic candidate filed to run for the office.
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Abbott, 65, has a primary challenger for the first time in her 11-year tenure. She previously faced a Democrat in the general election in both her campaigns to date.
She said she has two main goals for her next term, should she be re-elected. The first is to make the court more responsive to citizens and the second is to help create a smooth transition for the new judge.
When people come to the court seeking a case file, clerks must retrieve a paper file either from the courthouse basement or a remote document storage area at 510 Gateway Drive in Medina.
The court has been storing documents there for five years because officials ran out of room in the courthouse. So retrieving a document often may take several days.
Just after Abbott took office in 2007, the court began digitizing its documents. "But that actually takes more time," she said.
Still, she added, "Now we are scanning everything in every case."
Clerks typically print documents and then scan them in order to create digital files. But Abbott is changing the work flow, requiring everyone - including bailiffs and the judge - to use digital files instead of paper.
The new process will allow any staff member to access files at any point in the process.
But she said the court is hampered by outdated legacy case management software.
"Even though we're scanning, we're still back in the 1970s and 1980s," Abbott said.
She said her computer science education gives her the expertise needed to select a new system that will "bring our court into the future."
Abbott said she started her working career as an English teacher but decided to try something new several years after marrying her husband, an electrical engineer.
As self-described "geeks," the two were not surprised when she thought she had an aptitude for engineering.
But she resisted the guidance after realizing that she didn't enjoy drafting blueprints.
"I was never a very good or patient printer," she explained. "You've probably noticed that most engineers print nicely and neatly. Well, I didn't."
Because she was teaching English at Cuyahoga Community College at the time, she was able to take any courses she desired.
She took computer programming course. At that time, they were called "data processing."
Cobol, Pascal and other machine languages were her forte.
She ended up in private industry as a programmer and a project manager. She worked at British Petroleum, among other corporations, for 17 years.
Abbott said her proclivity for technology could, in part, be hereditary. While her father was not particularly interested in machines during those early years of computing, her mother was using an Apple computer until she died last year at age 93.
"She enjoyed watching horse races online," Abbott explained with a smile. "She liked gray mares; they were her favorite."
In 1995, Abbott used her skills to modernize the Medina County Recorder's Office.
"As Medina was growing, the recorder's office was back in the dark ages," she said. "They either needed to hire a gazillion people or they needed to modernize."
She later became county recorder for 10 years after the county's Republican Party asked her to run for the job.
Skills in practice
Abbott said she has studied nearby courts' software systems to get a sense of options and pricing for digital modernization for the Medina court. She believes a new software package will cost approximately $350,000 to $400,000.
The clerk manages a $1 million budget, including a full-time staff of nine, but she'd like to spend even less.
"Hopefully I can negotiate a better deal," she said. "I want to get more bang for my buck. I'm hoping that by the end of the year I'll have new ... software that will make us a more efficient court," she said.
The upgrade also could help with the new judge's transition.
"When there's a new judge, that's the time to have new software and new process in place," Abbott said. "Because he can easily get used to it instead of having to learn old and new."
She added her decade of experience with the court can help her create a smooth transition for a new judge.
"Everyone sees the judge come out in the black robe, and everything seems to fall into place," she said. "But there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes."
Abbott said she can help the new judge with the massive administrative work behind the scenes. The judge will manage six armed bailiffs, a probation department, two magistrates and a multi-million-dollar budget, she noted.
"I can help ease that transition and be a liaison to all those parts he might not know about but that will be a big part of his life," she said.
"It would be rough on the court to have both a new judge and a new clerk in the same year," she added.
Away from work
Abbott finds time to lead an active life outside the court. Beyond the leisure interests of books, travel and gardens, Abbott and her husband are members of an Apple computer users' club that meets in Brecksville.
They attend Our Lady of Grace in Hinckley and St. Joseph's in Marblehead, near Lake Erie, where they own a condominium.
Abbott also is treasurer of Operation Homes, a nondenominational group with members from area churches. The group provides temporary food and shelter to homeless in Medina.
The Gazette interviewed Abbott in the basement of St. Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church on North Broadway Street in Medina, where Abbott volunteers for two hours Tuesdays before she heads to the office.
"Take a look at all the work socks we've collected," she said, gesturing to a pile of several dozen pairs behind her. "That's what we've needed most lately. We've had a lot of men temporarily out of work who needed socks and other basic items to get started in a new job, so people have donated."
She noted: "I don't do this to boost my political career. I go to pancake breakfasts and fish fries to do that, but this I do because I know the group really helps people who are down on their luck and need some temporary assistance to get back to work."
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Like Abbott, Republican challenger Tom Decker began his life in Parma Heights, where his family moved from Pennsylvania after his birth.
Decker, 58, attended Cuyahoga Community College, where he earned associates in applied sciences and criminal justice/security administration before joining Parma police.
He served on the force for 28 years before attending the University of Akron to earn a master's in extreme crisis communications.
He also has studied at the U.S. Homeland Security Department's Emergency Management Institute and Center for Domestic Preparedness
Decker has worked as a security consultant and investigator in private industry and as an emergency preparedness planner for the Medina County Health Department.
Vision for the future
Decker said he has met with the candidates for municipal court judge on the campaign trail and agrees when each of them speaks about the growing challenge of drug abuse in the county and the municipal court's role in addressing addiction.
"But I think there's something bigger than drugs," he said. "Whoever is elected to these two positions is going to have to manage growth - growth of the court to accommodate population growth in this city."
"Medina is a great place to live, and it's going to keep growing," he added, gesturing out the window of Cool Beans Café on Public Square in Medina.
Decker said his years of project management experience coupled with 28 years in the court system make him the right person for the job of managing that growth, he says.
He thinks Medina has been too slow to change. "We need a vision for the future as we talk about a new courthouse," he said.
Decker said he believes the city must think bigger as it grows. He advocates creating a justice center that would include a new municipal courthouse and a police station for the Medina department.
"It's just more efficient that we build a complex instead of one thing at a time, and it makes sense to have them co-located," he said.
"I'm not a politician," he added. "So I'll be honest and tell people that this is going to be costly, but if we modernize right this time, we won't have to do it again for a long time. Let's plan this structure for the future.
Beyond the ongoing issue of the courthouse, Decker said the municipal court has "grown stale" and needs a shakeup. He thinks "government should work like a business" and be responsive to residents' needs.
He wants to modernize the court's technology. Having visited several nearby municipal courts to investigate their practices, Decker said he is impressed with how Parma managed modernization alongside the city's explosive growth in the 1980s and 1990s.
"They have kept up instead of having to play catch-up," he said. "And that's something I'd like to see here."
In addition to information technology modernizing, Decker's expertise in security leads to his second priority for bringing the court into a new era: safety.
"Safety is everybody's job," he said.
He said he wants to upgrade security at the courthouse entrance with at least one armed officer and add more uniformed, armed bailiffs to the staff.
"Ideally, they'd be recently retired police officers," he said.
If it is built, a new courthouse also must prioritize security, Decker said.
He also wants to bring a new focus to customer service. "We work for the taxpayer," he said.
But above all, he said he recognizes the clerk's job of case management and accurate record-keeping. "That's the true benchmark of efficient court systems," Decker said.
Decker said he has been active in professional organizations, having recently served as Cleveland Chapter 28 vice president of Police and Fire Retirees of Ohio Inc. and as the Medina County commissioners' representative on the county's Foreclosure Prevention Task Force.
Now that his three children are adults, he said he enjoys spending time with them and 13 grandchildren and stepgrandchildren. They all manage to get together at holidays, he said.
After his first wife died, a friend of Decker's suggested he meet with a mutual friend who had some bereavement materials she could share with him.
The two were astounded to discover that they already knew one another. They realized they had been lab partners during their junior year in high school at Valley Forge.
"But we didn't keep in touch at all," Decker said. "It was the first time we had seen one another in years."
They developed a close friendship and married soon after. Both enjoy a love of travel, particularly encouraged by Susan Decker, who had a career as a flight attendant before having a family.
Decker enjoys being surprised by his wife. "Some mornings when we're sitting around the kitchen island having breakfast and listening to oldies, she'll just grab me and start dancing," he said.
Contact reporter Marina Malenic at (330) 721-4063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.