St. Tammany Parish voters will be faced with a rare choice Saturday: a clerk of court election with no incumbent.
Such an election has happened only once in the past 35 years in St. Tammany, in 1995, when five-term Clerk Lucy Reid Rausch retired and the seat was won by Malise Prieto, who has held the post for the ensuing five terms.
Prieto suddenly announced in August that she wouldn’t run again, saying she no longer had the drive to campaign.
“To do a job like this, one must have ‘fire in their belly,’” she said at the time. “I’ve kept that fire burning for a long, long time — almost 20 years. Unfortunately, that fire has been extinguished by ugly politics and twisted truths.”
Three candidates are vying for the job, with each claiming experience as a prime quality: Nelson Rivers cites his work as a lawyer, Melissa Henry points to her experience in the Clerk’s Office, and Matt Faust touts his time as a banker and a former Covington city councilman.
Rivers, 65, was the first of the three to get into the race, announcing in January that he intended to run and immediately launching attacks against Prieto. He said morale in the office is low, the clerk’s pay is too high and the office is top-heavy with upper-echelon employees.
Prieto’s withdrawal from the race took some of the bite out of Rivers’ criticisms, but he contends that the issues he brought up in the first half of the year are still important.
The office needs “somebody who understands the problems of judges and a lawyer,” said Rivers, who offered his 40-year legal career as evidence that he is familiar with every function of the office. “I think it’s essential that (the clerk) be a lawyer, especially in a larger parish.”
Rivers’ plans, if elected, would include immediately reducing the number of supervisors in the office to lower payroll costs and dividing employees into small units charged with increasing efficiency in the areas in which they work.
Henry, 50, who has been working at the office for the past four years, said a clerk must not only manage the front counter that the public sees but also understand how the work is done behind the counter in the clerk’s warren of cubicles. She is a supervisor in the land records section but has “cross-trained” in eight of the 11 other sections in the office, she said.
As a notary, she also is familiar with the Code of Civil Procedure, she said, and she has served as an election commissioner for a St. Tammany precinct.
Henry said it was always her intention to run for clerk when Prieto retired, and when the incumbent made her surprise announcement, she was ready.
If elected, Henry said, she would immediately move to upgrade the Clerk’s Office’s technology, digitizing records, streamlining the record purchasing process and allowing the electronic filing of documents — something she already has been working on, she said.
The third candidate in the race is Faust, a 60-year-old former banker and five-term Covington city councilman who for the past two years has been working for St. Tammany Parish Assessor Louis Fitzmorris. Like Henry, Faust decided to get into the race when Prieto bowed out.
“I felt like it was time for me to re-enter the public service arena,” Faust said.
His background in running banks would serve him well in running the 150-employee Clerk’s Office, he said. “It’s a very complex place,” he said.
Like Henry, Faust cites technology upgrades as a primary need in the office. “The website is antiquated,” he said. The office needs to take credit cards and allow lawyers to file electronically, he added.
He also promised to study the fees charged by the office to see if they could be reduced.
And like Rivers, he said, there is a morale problem in the office — but he attributed some of that to Rivers’ attacks on Prieto.
“There is a divide in the office, with employees taking sides. I think I can bring those employees together,” Faust said.
Whoever wins will be taking on a big responsibility, Prieto said. “To describe what the clerk does in 15 minutes is impossible,” she said.
A runoff would be Nov. 21.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.