Hill County justice of the peace candidate Audrey Barger said she decided to run for the position because of the years of support, help and experience the community has given her, giving her a strong background in legal issues and court administration.
“I would like to use that knowledge to give back to the community by providing them with a justice of the peace that truly understands the law,” Barger said.
Barger faces Cathy Chinske Huston in the nonpartisan race.
Barger said she thought about filing for the position four years ago until she found that current Justice Terry Stoppa was running for the position, and she thought he would do a fine job. Once she found he was not running again, she decided to file.
She said her years of experience in the courts and the legal system will serve her well. She worked as a legal assistant while still in college and went to work as a legal assistant and paralegal once she received her degree in business technology with a minor in communications from Northern Montana College, now Montana State University-Northern, in Havre.
She then went to work in the Hill County Attorney’s Office before taking her current position in 2001 as a deputy clerk of court and courtroom clerk.
“I understand the role of the justice of the peace very clearly.” Barger said. “I have a really good understanding … of the laws surrounding the justice of the peace, what their responsibilities are.”
She added that that knowledge would help her run the office fairly, effectively and efficiently.
“Any time you know a job better, you’re going to be more efficient, make less mistakes,” Barger said. “You’re going to know how to implement procedures that are necessary and still do it within the law, within the budget.”
Barger said that is a crucial part of running the office of the justice of the peace, particularly in times of increasing budget difficulties for the county.
“The biggest issue facing all of the counties right now is money,” Barger said.
Most fines and fees are not kept in the county, but go to different programs, agencies and funds administered by the state, she said.
“The state takes the money and the county offices still have to operate somehow,” she said.
The county commissioners set the budget, staff and hours of operation for the justice of the peace, working with factors often out of their control, Barger said. The justice then has to work within that framework.
“I would like to … still provide the community with the opportunity for everyone to have their day in court, but it’s going to take someone with some experience and someone with the technological background to really come up with some ways to make everything more efficient … ,” Barger said. “I want to continue to provide services to the public, not just services but excellent service, really good service, with the reduced budget that I know I will be working with.”
With reduced budgets and staffing on the county level, that will create problems such as keeping the office open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Barger said she wants to find ways to improve the service under those conditions.
She said some ways she would like to increase efficiency include how hearings and appointments are scheduled, and possibly trying things like having a locked box in which people could drop off items such as payments of fines or copies of proof of insurance. Making sure everything is clearly defined and properly conducted also could help reduce appeals, she said.
She added that part of that process is making sure she follows the law and the Montana constitution rather than legislating from the bench.
When she filed as a candidate, her opinions on the law went out the window, Barger said, adding that she will follow the law whether she agrees with it or not.
“I’m going to plant one foot on Montana law the other foot on the constitution and keep my fingers out of legislating,” Barger said. “To me that’s what a good justice of the peace does.”