Eye on Greene County Circuit Court Clerk candidates

By Susan Gibbs

Three challengers to Greene County Circuit Court Clerk Brenda Compton told voters why they should be elected to her position at

Circuit Court Clerk Brenda Compton

Circuit Court Clerk Brenda Compton

Piedmont Virginia Community College’s Eugene Giuseppe Center Wednesday, September 30 at the candidates’ forum co-sponsored by the Charlottesville Area League of Women Voters and the Greene County Chamber of Commerce.

The Circuit Court Clerk is a constitutional officer elected to an eight-year term. Compton, who has held the position since Judge Daniel R. Bouton appointed her to replace retiring Clerk of Circuit Court Marie Durrer last spring, began her 42-year career with Greene County working for the late David Dickey, when he was commonwealth attorney here. In 1980, when Durrer became circuit court clerk, Compton became her deputy and remained in that position until appointed to take Durrer’s place.

Today, the position carries a salary of more than $90,000 per annum, and much responsibility.

The Code of Virginia lists more than 800 responsibilities and duties for the clerk, many of which are legally sophisticated and highly complex. They include: public safety; court services; recorder of deeds; probate judge; custodian of court cases; public services; preservation of historic records; keeper of election ballots; and law library maintenance.

The clerk is a consultant to prosecutors and law enforcement officials, prepares legal documents for the court such as summonses and legal service of process; authorizations for arrest; and other judicial directives He or she is the official record keeper of criminal felony cases, misdemeanor appeal cases and criminal indictments, assembles the grand jury, issues juror questionnaires to establish a qualified jury pool, manages jury operations, collects criminal fines and costs, and provides critical public safety information related to criminal convictions and terms of incarceration of criminals to the department of corrections, probation and parole agencies, the state police and many other public safety agencies.

In addition, he or she keeps records on all non-criminal circuit court cases, such as contract disputes, land disputes, claims of negligence, divorce proceedings, adoptions, and requests for name changes.

The clerk is also responsible for retaining all deeds and land records recorded since the inception of the county and for ensuring adequate public access to these public records. He or she acts as a probate judge when a last will and testament is presented for legal probate of an estate, ensures the authentication of the will, conducts a legal hearing with witnesses, makes a legal appointment of an executor or administrator of a decedent’s estate and prepares legal documents and orders related to the handling of the estate.   The clerk collects applicable estate taxes for the Commonwealth, and is responsible for the appointment and qualification of guardians for minors or incapacitated adults.

He or she is responsible for issuing marriage licenses, processing notary public commissions, and processing business name applications for citizens. The clerk issues witness subpoenas in court cases, issues concealed handgun permits, and administers the oath of public office to elected officials, sheriff deputies and to citizens who are appointed to local or state commission posts. In most jurisdictions, military discharge papers, referred to as DD-214, are filed with the clerk. In some jurisdictions, the clerk may provide passport application services and fishing license services.

The clerk takes custody of all election ballots after the local election officials have certified the election results. When localities request that bond issues and referendums, such as school bond construction issues, be placed on election ballots, the clerk issues legal documents for legal publication.

He or she is also custodian of historic records. Clerk’s Offices throughout Virginia possess a wealth of historic records, such as the original last will and testament of George Washington, that are available for public inspection. These historical records require constant protection and preservation work to ensure that they remain in existence for future generations. The General Assembly created a special grants preservation program, managed by the Library of Virginia, which allows clerks to use state grant funding to perform preservation and conservation work to restore and protect valuable history.

A graduate of William Monroe High School, Compton says she is certified in all areas of the circuit court and that she has excellent customer skills. “I deal compassionately with clients and coworkers, but practice impartiality,” she told the more than 100 Greene County taxpayers who attended the forum.

Compton said that in all the 35 years she has been part of the circuit clerk’s office, audits have been perfect.

Challenging Compton for her position are, in alphabetical order: Brad Berry, who is currently employed as a teacher of social studies at William Monroe High School, Steve Keene, who manages community programs and serves as community emergency response team coordinator for the Greene County Sheriff’s Office; and Amber Knight, who is deputy clerk of the Greene County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court and General District Court.

Brad Berry

Brad Berry

Berry, a graduate of William Monroe High School and an army veteran, began his working years practicing law, as an assistant commonwealth attorney in Orange, and on his own from 1988-1993, specializing in criminal defense and residential real estate closings from his office in Stanardsville. During that time, in 1991, he was elected At Large to a term on the Greene County Board of Supervisors, serving one year as vice-chairman. Now, he has been with William Monroe High School for 18 years, serving as athletic director, assistant principal, and finally teacher of social studies. Berry has also served on the Greene County Planning Commission as an ex-officio member, the Greene County Industrial Development Authority, the Skyline Community Action Program Board of Directors, the Route 29 Corridor Study Committee and the Parks and Recreation Committee.

Keene is a graduate of the Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and holds a master’s degree in criminal justice from Virginia Commonwealth University. He says he has devoted his career to the criminal justice and legal field. He began this career as a crisis counselor in 1993 working with criminal justice offenders with mental health and substance abuse issues, and then joined the Virginia State Police in 1994, and was assigned to Greene County, where he served for seven years until that career was derailed due to felony convictions.

According to reports, it was while he was a state trooper that during that Keene faced eight felony charges of making a false statement on an application for an automobile certificate of title. Also according to reports, Keene purchased two dozen vehicles, mostly at the Central Virginia Auto Auction at the Colonial Auto Center in Albemarle County from March 1997 to August 1999. Although state law requires anyone buying five or more vehicles during 12 consecutive months to obtain a dealer’s license, Keene never did. Instead, he listed relatives and friends as title holders on a dozen vehicles before reselling them.

In 2001 an Albemarle County grand jury in 2001 tossed out two charges while certifying six others.

Prior to being elected sheriff of Greene County, Steve Smith, who had also attended auto auctions and had received a couple of cars from Keene, testified at Keene’s trial that he had attended 10 to 15 auctions with Keene. Smith stopped attending the auctions after receiving a letter from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles in October 1997 about the transactions.

In 2002 Keene’s trial resulted in three felony convictions for altering or forging vehicle titles. The convictions were upheld in October 2003 in state appeals court and in the state Supreme Court four months later. They derailed Keene’s career as a state trooper, but he went on to become regional criminal justice planner in the Shenandoah Valley, coordinating criminal justice planning for 21 localities, a two-year project financed by a grant. When the grant ended Keene joined the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, conducting state inspections, audits and enforcing recordkeeping standards, and conducting investigations related to unlawful environmental activities.

In 2006 Former Gov. Timothy M. Kaine restored Keene’s rights to vote and hold office, along with those of nearly 700 others.

Steve Keene

Steve Keene

Keene’s right to possess firearms was restored in 2008 in Buchanan County Circuit Court.

Two years ago Keene, then an independent, challenged Supervisor Jim Frydl for his Midway District seat on the Greene County Board of Supervisors, losing by 32 votes, with Frydl receiving 782 votes to Keene’s 750.

Keene is currently working for the Virginia Department of Health Professions, investigating healthcare allegations, and part-time for the Greene County Sheriff’s Office, managing community programs and serving as the Community Emergency Response Team coordinator. He is a member of the Virginia Community Criminal Justice Association, the Council on Licensure, Enforcement and Regulation, the Virginia Citizens Defense League and is a life member of the National Rifle Association.

Knight is a United Christian Academy graduate and a lifelong resident of Greene County who believes that all staff should be cross trained and keep up with changes in laws. She plans to apply for grants, if elected.

The candidates responded to nine questions.

The first was: How can we trust you not to misuse the personal information to which the clerk’s office has great access?

Compton said simply, “Because I took an oath.”

Berry said that he totally understands the meaning of confidentiality.

Keene cited his various experiences that called for confidentiality, including that of a crisis counselor, a state trooper, and security clearances with various agencies in the years since.

Knight pointed out that all juvenile records are confidential.

The second question was whether or not the candidates believe it is appropriate to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples due to religious convictions.

Berry said, “I will honor the law … we know going in what the law is.”

Keene said that he would follow the letter of the law, as did both Knight and Compton.

The third question was about party affiliations, noting that the sample ballot showed one candidate as a republican, and the other three as independents.

Keene, who ran for supervisor as an independent two years ago, said, “I chose to be a republican … I was raised very conservative and am proud of it.”

Amber Knight

Amber Knight

Knight said she was raised as a republican, but votes nonpartisan. Compton said she was raised republican, married a democrat, and votes on an individual basis. Berry said he has always been an independent.

The fourth question was: “What do you consider the most important duty of the clerk’s job?

Compton said she would have to consider the responsibility for criminal activities—keeping accurate records on felonies and misdemeanors—is most important, but of equal importance is treating everyone with dignity and respect.

Berry said that every area of the job is important. “Criminal law is particularly important … qualifying jurors … (keeping) land records … probate.”

Keene said that for him public safety is number one, but referenced the more than 800 duties for which the clerk is responsible.

Knight said that all of the duties are vital, but that for her, “public service stands out.”

The fifth question was: If elected, do you expect to make significant changes in the way the office is managed or operated?

Berry said that he would “wait and see.”

Keene said that he would add recorded messages, a Web site, and social media.

Knight said that like Berry, she would “wait and see,” but would add technology.

Compton said the clerk’s files are not compatible with the county’s web site. Right now most information can be accessed online, but she would like to do more in the future. “We’re trying to get a grant for technical improvements,” she said.

The sixth question was: Why do you wish to give up your current job to become clerk?

Keene said, “It’s a promotion. I’ve been promoted during my career, not demoted.”

Knight said, “I love my job. I love working with people. This would be a promotion. It’s time to move on.”

Compton said, “I want to keep my job.”

Berry said, “I’ve like the idea of being clerk ever since I became an attorney in the 1980s.”

The seventh question was: What Greene County community activities have you been involved in?

Compton said she has served on the Greene Hills Club Board of Directors, and has been its president. She is also very active in her church.

Knight said she has two young children and so has had limited involvement in community organizations. She has been actively involved with the Stanardsville Volunteer Fire Department.

Keene said he has been active all of his life, with the sheriff’s office, the criminal justice department, and more.

Berry said he has coached boys’ athletic teams at William Monroe High School, and been part of the Greene County Singers.

The eighth question was: Do you see this position for you as one term, two terms, or for the rest of your life?

Knight said she is in the race for longevity; Compton said she would like to hold office as long as she is able; Keene said winning the office would be the capstone of his career and he is in the race for longevity; and Berry said he would stay for the rest of his working life.

The ninth question was: What is your view of the second amendment (to the United States Constitution, referring to a citizen’s right to bear arms)?

All candidates said they support a citizen’s right to bear arms.

Three constitutional officers—Commissioner of Revenue Larry V. “Percy” Snow, Commonwealth’s Attorney Ronald L. Morris, and Treasurer Stephanie Deal—are running unopposed for re-election.

One other constitutional officer, Sheriff Steve Smith, will be meeting his challenger, Virginia State Police Officer Brooks Taylor, at the candidates’ forum to be held at the same place, PVCC’s meeting room, upstairs from the library in Stanardsville at 7 pm Wednesday, October 7.

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