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Another View -- Donna Sytek: A $400,000 solution in search of a problem

January 10. 2018 11:41PM

I must disagree with my good friend Alan Glassman’s Jan. 2 op-ed calling for the restoration of the duties of county registers of probate.

As a candidate for Rockingham County Register of Probate, I campaigned on a platform of eliminating this office. The Legislature had stripped it of most of its duties in 2011, transferring them to the clerk of the probate division of the circuit court. With scant responsibilities and no workspace, it made no sense to continue this elected position.

I was elected to this constitutional office with more than 94,000 votes, and kept my campaign promise by having a constitutional amendment to eliminate it introduced in the Senate. Despite a favorable committee recommendation, the measure failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote, in part because there was a competing measure being considered in the House.

That bill, HB 476, seeks to restore some of the duties performed by the registers of probate before the 2011 reorganization, with a goal of providing better customer service to those who may encounter difficulty using the new e-filing system for guardianships and estates. During the course of my campaign, I heard not a single complaint from anyone using the new online system. At least in Rockingham County, there was no public clamor for change.

Currently, anyone who would like assistance opening a probate matter can call one of the court’s service centers where the trained staff has computer access to schedules, filings, and documents. Residents can also go to the county court house and talk to the court clerk or her staff for help with their concerns. Indeed, I have seen court staff sitting down with individuals and explaining the process to them.

I have heard anecdotes about callers being told to hire a lawyer to assist them with probate matters. This is probably because court staff, while helpful with the technical aspects of completing forms online, are not authorized to give legal advice.

I just don’t see how an elected Register of Probate who is not required to have any court experience could provide better customer service than the professional staff. HB 476 requires that the court provide some training to registers, but how will this equip them to guide someone through a complicated probate matter? A few training sessions between the election and taking office would hardly be adequate. Testimony was that it takes two years on the job to master probate rules and procedures.

Even if the elected register had some professional expertise, how would the public find him or her? You would expect the register of probate to be at the court house but the bill doesn’t require it, and supporters suggested that the register could work part time or from home. How is one person with no staff and perhaps no experience going to provide better customer service than the full-time professionals who work daily at the court?

The bill requires the state representatives from each county to set the salary, benefits, and hours of the register of probate. I am not sure how they would determine an appropriate schedule and compensation package for this new position with significantly different duties than it had before the 2011 court reorganization.

Moreover, it makes no sense to have a sole county employee as part of the state court system. Even before the change, registers were state employees. Just because they were elected from counties doesn’t make them county officials any more than the fact that Salem representatives are elected from Salem makes them town officials.

The compensation set by the county delegation would be funded by diverting more than $400,000 from certain court fees that are already dedicated to other purposes, including the information technology fund. This would jeopardize the continuation of the court’s e-filing project, which has increased efficiency and resulted in significant cost savings.

If legislators want to improve customer service at the probate division, they should provide funding for additional court employees to staff the kiosks at the circuit court, as they currently do in Rockingham and Hillsborough counties. This would allow the public to get assistance not only with probate matters but cases before the district court and family division as well. The registers of probate can continue their present minimal duties and token pay until there is a change in the constitution.

Donna Sytek is the Rockingham County Register of Probate.

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