East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court Doug Welborn is running for a seventh term in office against a lone challenger, Sarah Holliday-James, who frames the election as a race between a career politician and a career public servant.
“It’s time for a change,” said Holliday-James, a certified paralegal and former judicial assistant to 19th Judicial District Court Judges Don Johnson and Trudy White.
Welborn, first elected in 1991, begs to differ and claims his opponent and fellow Republican is painting an inaccurate picture of the choice facing voters on Oct. 24.
Welborn, 61, contends the Clerk of Court’s Office — with offices in City Hall, the 19th Judicial District Courthouse, the downtown archives facility and a Coursey Boulevard branch — is all about serving the public, from issuing marriage licenses and passports to processing lawsuits and traffic tickets.
“I’m not a politician. I don’t like the word politician. I’m a true public servant,” he said. “You work for the people of the parish.”
Holliday-James, 52, is a business owner, cancer survivor and member of the East Baton Rouge Parish Planning and Zoning Commission. She touts her involvement in the community.
“I campaign every day, whether I’m running for something or not,” she said.
This is not Holliday-James’ first bid for public office. She ran unsuccessfully for an East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council seat in 2004 and 2008, the state House of Representatives in 2007 and 2011, and the Louisiana Public Service Commission in 2012.
On the campaign trail, Holliday-James is hitting hard at a scandal that rocked the Clerk of Court’s Office in late 2012 when two now-former employees, William “Billy” Bates Colvin and his then-girlfriend, Debra Vicknair Bell, were arrested and later indicted in the theft of large quantities of cocaine and several guns from a Clerk of Court’s Office evidence vault inside the 19th JDC.
Colvin’s mother, Kay Bates, was a sitting 19th JDC judge at the time. She retired last year.
Colvin, Bell and four others eventually pleaded guilty. Colvin was sentenced last month to 15 years in prison. Bell, who cooperated with authorities and led them to some of the stolen guns, was given a suspended prison term and put on probation.
Colvin and Bell were immediately fired, but Welborn’s opponent says the terminations were a case of too little, too late.
Holliday-James said she cannot stress enough that the security breach occurred on Welborn’s watch, and she accuses him of mismanagement.
“You bring it to a place where it’s supposed to be safe,” she said of the more than 48 pounds of cocaine and five guns stolen from the evidence vault. “The ultimate person responsible is Doug.”
Welborn stresses that the incident prompted major changes within the Clerk of Court’s Office. Those preventive measures included more cameras and locks, written logs and random drug testing.
“We took the bull by the horns. We’ve totally corrected the problem,” he said. “We (now) have the absolute best system around.”
Holliday-James also accuses Welborn of financial mismanagement, noting that records she obtained from his office show the office’s total expenditures for fiscal year 2014 outpaced total revenue by about $1.9 million. Those same records show the office’s revenues exceeded spending in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 fiscal years.
“I can’t imagine why the Clerk’s Office is in the red,” she said.
Welborn says his office isn’t, but instead has a roughly $4 million surplus. He also stresses that the fees his office can charge for various services are regulated by the Legislature.
Welborn maintains the Clerk of Court’s Office is operating at premium efficiency with a well-trained and talented staff of 176 employees, including 139 full-timers, but he’s always looking to reach even higher. The office, he said, is working to digitize many of its documents to make them available for anyone in the state on a personal computer.
Welborn said he strives for a case management system that is second to none.
“Second is good, but we want the best,” he said.
Holliday-James said she wants to bring the Clerk of Court’s Office up to speed with the same electronic filing system used in federal district court in Baton Rouge.
Welborn notes that the Louisiana Supreme Court must approve e-filing.
“That’s right around the corner,” he said.
So is the election, but Welborn said he’s not resting on his past terms in office.
“We take every campaign we’ve ever been in and run it like we’re 10 points behind,” he said. “We’re running a full-fledged campaign. I will be on street corners.”
Holliday-James is supremely confident and said she’s in the race to win it.