Probate Judge A. Lee Tucker found himself busy after taking the oath of office on Jan. 14.
"The first day I came in, I already had two commitments hearings set," he said in a May 17 interview in his office. "So that was the first day. We've done 39 of those since I've been here, and that's in four months. We've done 21 adoptions. We've done 40,000 tag transfers.
"I've got got a good staff, and we're getting things done, but we've been busy."
So has Tucker.
"I want the public to know my door is always open. I'm here to talk to you if you have a problem. Come see me," he said. "If you call down here, I may be the one who answers the phone. I've surprised a number of people with that." He said as he was previously an attorney, he now feels the citizens of the county are like his clients "and I want to take care of them."
Tucker is still getting his own personal office worked out with touches as he has moved in after the retirement of Rick Allison from that office. He has already brought in a number of vintage radios that he collects and works on as a hobby.
More importantly, Tucker said he has also been working to improve the office in a number of ways, some of which the public can visibly see.
The building itself has been pressure washed, and he is planning on having exterior painting soon, with painters getting back with him in a couple of days. "We'll have dark charcoal gray where the green trim is now", with white still used for the main part of the exterior. Two levels of cornices will also be highlighted in slightly different colors of gray to set the building off, he said.
He said that work is something to cooperate with the upgrades being done downtown by Jasper Main Street and to improve downtown. "We want to fit in," he said.
"We replaced the front treads which were a trip hazard coming in," he said. "There were rubber mats down, but there was a gap where they were gone. Then you had a metal pan and you had a lip. It was something people had fallen over, so we had them replaced."
An emergency employee door was put in that goes out into the courtroom, giving it a push bar to go out, he said. "We've had a brand new emergency door to go out the back with a push bar. It's not an entry door. But if a horrible situation happens here, we're ready for our employees to be safe."
The staff is also tackling what he called "a tremendous amount of records" that were stored upstairs, involving "expired information."
"Judge Allison had gotten permission (from the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery) to get rid of some of them. We've gotten permission to get rid of more. We've probably spent five different days we've had truckloads of documents taken to the landfill and buried, because they are documents that have to be buried. They have information that no one can get to, so we have them buried so that they are secure."
Tucker said that the records involved a large amount of paper being stored in an older building. "We felt that could be a hazard," he said. "But all the records we are supposed to keep we still have. Some of the records that we are now doing are electronically stored, so we are able to do them that way. Some of the records the state is not requiring us to keep. Then there are financial records where we have already been audited and we are able to get rid of those records so we don't have to maintain them anymore."
With space now freed upstairs, Tucker plans to set up a training center there for his clerks, allowing them to have a dedicated area for computer-based training which is quiet and away from the public.
"We've had to do some security training for the elections and so forth," he said, taking up two to three hours. "There is not really a good space for anyone to do it down here for more than one person at a time. It is only using my office or the chief clerk's office, because that is the only place you can have a quiet place to do that training."
Tucker said he plans to do more on the interior of the building, saying it will "look like a different place" in six months.
"We're talking to the people who build our cabinets to reface and change the coloring of the cabinets," he said. "We're going to make it a little more modern and attractive. We're going to do some other things that will be happening in the next few months that we're working toward doing."
The public areas are at the "top of the list" to do first, he said, and then he has plans eventually for the courtroom area. He said the long-term goals include remodeling the courtrooms "to make it more of a courtroom rather than a conference room." Also, he plans to rearrange the search computers, so some will be up front and some will be closer to the records.
Tucker wants to create more space for the driver's license area as it gets crowded near the doorway.
"This year it is time to renew some technology. We may have to replace our server," he said. Tucker said he has also talked to the Walker County Commission about getting electronic poll books that Secretary of State John Merrill has advocated for elections by 2022, replacing the paper poll books used now at precincts. "So if we don't do it for this election cycle, we definitely will have to by the next election cycle," he said.
"There is an amount of HAVA money still available but the county commission still has to make the decision on whether it wants to go to the poll books. There is some money, but not enough to buy all the ones that would be needed. We have a lot of precincts." He said it is best to transition all at the same time.
"I think it is a good idea to go to it. It will make it easier to check in for the public. The poll books have access to the entire voter rolls. If they are not sure where they are supposed to be, they will be able to be told based on the poll book. I'm hopefull we will be able to do those, but I'm not sure we will be able to do those by this election cycle," he said.
In answering a question about the poll books recently at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Jasper, which Tucker attended, Walker County Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop said, "My attitude is this: Give us the money." He likened the county government to being sharecroppers. "They don't give us enough money to do what they send us, and they don't do any counties that way," he said, daring them to make the county do it. "We don't have the money to do it," he said.
Tucker also said he has been reading manuals and getting prepared for the 2020 elections, the qualifications of which start later this year. The deadline for qualifying for the elections will be Nov. 8 this year — a little more than five months from now. He has rooms reserved at the Jasper Civic Center reserved for the election nights. He noted next year the presidential, congressional, state and county primaries are all on March 3, followed by the runoffs on April 14 and the General Election on Nov. 3.
In terms of the accounting of funds, he said some procedures are being restructured to make them easier.
Tucker said a large amount of unclaimed funds was discovered, as some items were uncashed going back to 2009. Some items were lost in the mail, undelivered or uncashed with no follow-up policy in place to pay the funds.
Procedures for getting the funds have been established now. "We have to have your ID and they have to sign an affidavit as to the check so we can reissue the check and get them their money," he said.
In the May 8 edition of the Daily Mountain Eagle, Tucker published a list of individuals and businesses to which refunds are due, using a full page. (The paper is archived at the Daily Mountain Eagle office and for online subscribers at mountaineagle.com.)
He said his legal and business backgrounds have both been helpful on the job, noting he and the staff have continued to look at efficiencies as well as to carry out the law. Asked what has been the most surprising aspect of the job, he said it was the hours required in the job.
"I am generally here before 7:30 (a.m.) and don't leave on some evenings before 7 or 7:30," he said. "It depends. I work when I have to."
He said as far as staffing, "we've got a good team. We've tried to foster the team concept. I've let them know I will do any of the work they do.
"I haven't learned how to do it all yet, but if the mail needs to be gotten or it needs to be posted out, or I need to do something, we're all going to work, because that is what I'm about. I'm a hands-on kind of guy." He has also put a suggestion box up for employees, noting a better work environment comes from workers being more invested in what they do, which he thinks is another reason why the process is going more smoothly.
Lee would not comment at this time on the appointment of a new chief clerk, Jerome P. "Jerry" Davis, as the matter is currently in litigation concerning the dismissal of the previous chief clerk, Angela Howard.