Kiss and make up: Collier commission, clerk agreement could reopen satellite offices

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— There was relative calm and an air of cooperation Wednesday, the day after a stormy meeting led to an agreement to keep the Collier Clerk of Courts office open and to end a long legal feud between the clerk and Collier County Commission.

Still under review was a recent decision to close several of the clerk’s satellite offices and let the employees there go -- a move Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock said he made because of budget cutbacks.

On behalf of the clerk’s office and commission, county government spokesman John Torre issued a joint statement on Wednesday afternoon, outlining the terms of the agreement reached Tuesday night.

“In the next few days, (Brock) will review his decision to close all of the clerk’s satellite offices and reinstate those satellites that are most cost-effective,” the release states.

Brock might rehire employees that were let go in the mid-September round of cuts and office closings, Brock spokesman Robert St. Cyr and Torre wrote.

The battle between Collier commissioners and the Clerk of Courts has gone on for several years, with multiple court cases and disagreements over how the two agencies related to one another.

Tuesday, Brock sent commissioners a letter threatening to shut down the non-court side of his main office that handles work for county government if the county didn’t agree to provide Brock at least the $3.7 million budget it had agreed upon in July.

That would have meant laying off 15 to 45 employees, Brock stated in a letter to Jim Mudd, who retired Tuesday as county manager due to illness.

By night’s end, commissioners agreed to provide Brock’s office with a $5.2 million budget agreed to in mediation earlier this year. As part of the agreement, Brock said he wouldn’t appeal an ongoing lawsuit with the county.

In addition to serving as the county’s official auditor, Brock’s office also takes and keeps minutes of all official county meetings, maintains land records, tax deeds and zoning maps.

Brock is constitutionally responsible for writing all county payroll checks.

“Who would write the checks on Oct. 1” if Brock stopped doing county government work? Commissioner Donna Fiala asked fellow commissioners Tuesday.

The agreement late Tuesday put that concern to rest.

Wednesday, it was more of a question whether the deal is going to stick.

“I just pray,’’ Fiala said, “I’ve thought it in the past and found it wasn’t. But this time ... if it isn’t, my hopes will be dashed to the ground.”

Asked the same question, St. Cyr wrote via e-mail: “Yes, I do, as good will prevailed.”

In the released statement, Brock stated: “Going forward, I am committed to developing a positive and collaborative working relationship with (commission) members and the new county manager (Leo Ochs).”

Fiala’s part of the statement read: “I believe that both parties want to move beyond the acrimony that has existed in the past and enter into a new era of cooperation. I’m optimistic that the interlocal agreement that will be negotiated over the next six months will establish a permanent framework for the efficient and effective operations of both organizations as we strive collectively to meet the needs of our citizens in these most difficult economic times.”

Putting out the joint release was part of the agreement reached Tuesday evening.

Commissioner Tom Henning had placed the issue on Tuesday’s agenda and stressed the importance of the clerk’s office. He questioned whether the commission was allowed to meet without the presence of a clerk’s employee to take notes.

Wednesday, rather than rehash the court case and their disputes, both sides focused on how much money Brock would get, and which services would be restored.

“The agreed upon funding level of $5.2 million is higher than the $3.7 million that had been originally approved for the clerk’s office by the (commission) on July 28, but lower than Brock’s original request of $6.1 million,” the joint release states.

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