Court Clerk: Low Profile, High Impact

It’s one of those terms that just doesn’t tell you nearly enough: “Clerk” of the Circuit Court.

It’s like calling Abraham Lincoln a lawyer, Michael Jordan a retiree, Scott Peterson a widower, Bill Clinton a Democratic foot soldier, John Gacey a clown or Michael Jackson an African-American. It needs context.

In the case of this “clerk,” it’s more like CFO of Hillsborough County. The position controls $1.4 billion in annual revenue and a $1.2-billion investment portfolio. There are more than 800 employees. The budget exceeds $50 million.

The clerk stands astride the gateway to the courts. It’s the clerk’s office that maintains all court files and evidence. It assigns cases to judges.

It’s also custodian of all official records and administers the seven Hillsborough County commissioners.

Its power and impact belie its under-the-radar public awareness and bookkeeper, pencil-in-the-ear image.

This election cycle, however, that low profile is being ratcheted up in the race to replace the retiring Richard Ake, who has been clerk for the past 18 years. This time a couple of political veterans, County Commissioner Pat Frank, a Democrat, and former Commissioner Chris Hart, a Republican, are in the hunt.

And they have been joined by Republicans Bob Zegota, a commercial real estate broker, and Stephen Hall, an administrator for county courts, as well as Democrat Helene Marks, Ake’s general counsel. Marks is currently on a leave of absence — although maintaining cases to which she’s already committed.

Marks, who had never run for public office before, is Ake’s designated successor and the only attorney in the field. She leads all candidates in fund-raising — and arguably will need it. Marks, 51, has a name-recognition deficit to overcome — especially with primary opponent Frank.

“I started looking around internally four years ago,” recalls Ake, 63. “Helene emerged as having an interest, and I cultivated it. She’s a very quick study. As my attorney, she is part of my administrative staff. She is very aware of what it takes to run the office. She’s the most qualified person for the job.

“She now handles most all of the litigation,” adds Ake. “If we have an issue with a judge, she takes care of it. As a member of the Bar, she is well received. She’s one of them in that regard. Frankly, they don’t treat me the same.”

As for Ake, don’t look for him on any more ballots.

“I don’t have a clue what I’ll do,” he says. “Probably some fishing. But I have no intention of running for public office or doing anything that would be any kind of conflict with this office.”

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