SNOW HILL — With 28 years of public service under his belt, including 16 in his current position, Clerk of Circuit Court for Worcester County Stephen Hales has set his sights on retirement at the end of this term.
Hales’ tenure has come with massive changes to the office, including a continued increase in automation, and he is hopeful that voters will elect his current Deputy Clerk Susan Braniecki as his replacement to keep that momentum going.
As Clerk of Circuit Court, one of the things Hales is most proud of is his willingness to search for the best ways to modernize Worcester.
“People tend to think that Worcester County is a little bit slower than the rest of the state but I’ve got news for you,” Hales said.
The county is actually at the forefront with adding new technology and modernizing operations. It’s in line with a statewide initiative to have fully electronic courts.
“When you initiate the automation process, that’s the final clause of the event, all of the planning and work goes into it before that, all of the sweat, blood and tears,” said Hales. “We are going to, within the next two years, have a fully automated court system.”
Worcester got in on the ground floor with that during Hales’ tenure.
“We were the first county in the state of Maryland to automate our land records,” he said. “I piloted it, saw a need for it, saw the opportunity and stuck my neck on the chopping block.”
The effort to keep Worcester technologically viable is just one aspect of a career in public service that Hales is proud of. Prior to becoming Clerk of Court, he served for 12 years as Worcester’s Register of Wills. Despite not planning on public office, Hales decided to campaign for Register following two tragic deaths in his family only months apart. Believing that he could do a better job performing the duties of the office while being respectful of the circumstances that cause people to need the service, Hales set out to campaign with a miniscule budget and only about 10 signs.
“So what I would do is get up in the middle of the night and move my signs to a different location so people would think that I had more signs,” he admitted.
As Clerk of Court, Hales hopes that his tenure has helped residents of the county better understand exactly what the office does.
“We’re the origin of the record and the keeper of the record. New case pleadings and files come through the Circuit Court Clerk’s office,” he said. “Pleadings and files after the case has been open come through the Circuit Court Clerk’s office. We’re responsible for keeping that record.”
The office also issues business licenses, marriage licenses and administers Constitutional oaths of office.
Once his term is officially over come November, Hales isn’t sure what direction his retirement will take him. An avid outdoorsman and lover of the water, Hales expects to be kept happily occupied spending time with family during his retirement. But he hasn’t ruled out a return to some kind of public service down the road.
“I still have an interest in local community events and everything and I may have some interest in a state or local office later,” he said. “I’m not going to go home and sit in a rocking chair. I want to continue to be active in the community. I’d like to continue to work a certain degree.”
On his departure, Hales would like to see the office of the Clerk of Court go through a smooth transition. Given the momentum that the office has in areas like public relations and modernization, he’s hoping that voters will trigger a kind of changing of the guard by electing Braniecki.
“Susan’s a very bright person, a very knowledgeable person. I’ve always thought it benefited the public to have a smooth transition,” he said. “You don’t necessarily do something the person before you did. You build on it and go along with what you think you should do and that’s how it should be.”
Braniecki has served under three different Clerks of Court and has held nearly every position in the office from entry level clerk up.
“I grew up in that office. I started at the entry level … and progressed through the different stages and different jobs within the office,” she said. “I’ve done everything in the office. I take great pride in that office and I want to make sure all of the records and all of the adjustments that the clerk’s office does is continued.”
Braniecki currently serves as the President-Elect for the Maryland Clerks’ Association and has sat on a number of other related boards such as the Mid-Atlantic Association of Court Managers and Executive Committee of the Conference of Circuit Court Clerks. Like Hales, she views keeping pace with emerging technology as one of the biggest responsibilities of the office, anticipating a paperless court in the near future, and sees data security as a challenge on the horizon.
“I think one of them is the data security, being able to retrieve it and knowing that you’re going to be able to retrieve it 100 years from now,” she said.
As of this week, Braniecki faces a single challenger in the Republican primary for Clerk of Circuit Court, Mary Burgess, who ran unsuccessfully against Hales in 2010. Burgess currently works in the Circuit Court and is a familiar face in Snow Hill.
Unlike Hales, Register of Wills Charlotte Cathell confirmed this week she will be seeking her fifth term in Snow Hill. In a press release, Cathell said her reasoning for re-filing was simple.
“I love my job. I love the people and I love helping the citizens of Worcester County,” said Cathell, who handles the administration of the estates of county residents and serves as the clerk to the Orphans Court, collects inheritance taxes and audits administrative accounts of personal representatives and guardians. Cathell is unopposed of this week.