By Ron VandenBoom
Democratic Candidate for Hill County Clerk of Court, Dena Tippets, is concerned about what she sees as a creeping consolidation of Montana's county offices into a centralized state bureaucracy.
Her concern centers around a committee established during the last legislative session that is studying the possibility of funding all Clerk of Court offices by the state rather than the county.
The logic Tippets explained is that the cost of witnesses, public defenders, and other things can be unpredictable. In the case of major trials, the cost can be a real burden on county budgets.
"They are to look into the feasibility of the state taking care of all the costs of District Courts ...," she said. "I personally am opposed to that because even though they say it would only be a matter of funding, once the state can control fiscally, you know what's going to end up being next."
Tippets points to the state taking over the county assessors office as an example of what she fears.
The states takeover if secondary highways in Montana is another example of how something that seems attractive on the surface may have untold consequences at the county level Beaver Creek Park Road being an example.
"You're going to end up being under some state department... and they're going to come in and in some way want to run your office," Tippets said.
Tippets added that she believes she runs an effective office and a user-friendly office and that that is what Hill County Taxpayers deserve. She noted that she feels accountable to the residents of Hill County.
"More and more it seems like the state is trying to take over more and more local control," She said. "That's the feeling I get and people involved in the issue see that."
The executive committee of the Montana Clerk of Courts Association, to which Tippets belongs, is currently surveying its members to determine how they feel about the issue. A decision is expected March 23 when the committee meets again. "I really feel strongly about local control," Tippets said.
The Clerk of Court is an elective office charged with responsibility for issuing marriage licenses, passports, and also serves in a kind of "checks and balance" role for Montana's District Courts.
"A lot of people get them confused with court reporters," Tippets said, by way of explanation. "Most people assume that the district judge is the clerks boss and that is not true."
The Clerk of Court takes minutes of court proceedings for public consumption thereby protecting the publics' right to know what the courts are doing.
"The public can come into our office any time and go through our minutes book and find out what happened that day," Tippets said.
This explains why the Clerk of Court is an elective office and not a court appointed office. It checks the courts ability to hide what it is doing and protects the publics' right to know.
It is important however that the Clerk of Court and the judge have a good working relationship.
"We function very well when we have mutual respect," Tippets said. "And I do have a great deal of respect for the judges."