Van Zandt County Clerk and Treasurer Races Represented at Canton Forum
Last Tuesday, Van Zandt County (VZC) Clerk candidates Elsa Smith and Susan Strickland and County Treasurer candidates Kenny Edwards and Gina Cantrell participated in the multi-candidate forum, sponsored by the Van Zandt Republicans Club and Edom Tea Party at the Canton Civic Center.
More than 200 citizens turned out to hear from Countywide candidates, and a few submitted questions in advance, read to candidates by debate/forum moderators: Ken Hilton, Bob Reese, and Brad Blakemore.
Elsa Smith said that she has worked in the Van Zandt County Clerk’s Office for 10 ½ years, has trained for every aspect of the office, including elections and voter registration, and said, “I will not require any training on any of the duties of the office.” She promised that the County Clerk’s Office would continue to stay open through the lunch hour and display courteous and efficient customer service.
Susan Strickland has been working in the County Commissioners Office, and began her career 7 ½ years ago in the County Clerk’s Office, where she worked for two years. “I have no problem with training… It’s paid by the County, but it’s mandatory… so, it doesn’t matter if you’re trained or not, you have to go to training…I’m willing to do that.”
Question: Elections are a great responsibility of the County Clerk’s Office. Have you put together an election, including testing machines, mailing ballots, configuring e-poll votes? If not, how would you become proficient?
Smith answered first, “Yes… since I’ve been working in the County Clerk’s Office with my previous County Clerk, Charlotte Bledsoe, I started working Voter Registration and Elections…since 2007…which was a Constitutional Amendment, and that’s when I started learning… From 2007-2014 when she left, we configured over 20 elections… I have done six [elections] alone. And, that is configuring the machines, configuring the e-poll books that the judges use to check in a voter, and also ordering ballots.”
Strickland responded, “No, I have not done that, and one of the reasons why I haven’t done that is because there was no cross-training in that office. So, the part that I was allowed to do was either handle the media, handle the numbers, either running them upstairs, putting them on the doors… that was my job…also, checking in the equipment after the voting…making sure everything was returned… No cross training, so you can’t run the election if you’re not taught and it’s not available; but that will change if I get in there. Everybody will be cross-trained.”
Smith mentioned that when she came back to the office [from the Henderson County Clerk’s Office] in 2015, she was assigned Chief Election Deputy, due to her previous experience working elections.
Strickland explained that “at some point Ms. Elsa Smith decided to leave Van Zandt County and go work for Henderson County and do elections for them. She stayed there, I’m not sure if it was a month or two, and we didn’t have a person who could do the elections. We had no one trained to actually handle running the election. Next thing you know, Ms. Smith decided that she didn’t like Henderson County, and she wants to come back. She was making more money in Henderson County. She comes back and pretty much demands the same amount of money, and where does that leave Van Zandt County? We had to give it to her because that was the only person we had. No one was trained.”
Smith admitted that she was in Henderson County three or four weeks (because they had indeed, offered her more money) when she received a phone call from Ms. Bledsoe, who asked Smith to return to VZC because the person they had hired to take her spot “wasn’t working out.”
What is your knowledge and proficiency of the E-file System used in the County Clerk Office?
Strickland said that the E-file System came about after she’d moved over to the County Commissioners’ Office, so her experience with it is minimal. However, she said it’s similar to what they had used previously, and she is a quick learner.
Smith said that she was taught the E-filing System when she returned to the County Clerk’s Office, and it took her one week to learn it. “It’s a pretty simple System.”
What are your specific plans to manage the budget, and personnel of the office, including compensation, hiring, retaining, and/or firing, as needed?
Smith said that for as long as she’s been in the County Clerk’s Office, the Clerk had never gone over budget. “I plan to keep that just the same.” She said they have a great staff, though they will need someone else to come in and take over the civil cases, which Smith has been handling herself, and she added, “We’ll need to train another person for elections and voter registrations, as well.”
Strickland answered that she would stay within budget and take a look at her staff. She did indicate a need that she sees for some staff changes because she’s noticed several people are on their phones doing Facebook and Pinterest during the day when they should be working.
Smith defended her colleagues and said that they don’t usually get breaks in the office, and sometimes they will look at their phones, but only within the timeframe of a 15-minute break.
Strickland said that the way she plans to work out that issue, is to allow personal time on phones during a break, at which time, staff may step outside and do what they need or want to do outside the office. “But when a customer comes in, and sees you on your phone, that’s on me. That’s going to be on me because I’m the County Clerk.”
Kenny Edwards made his opening statement first. He said that he is a long-time resident of Van Zandt County, married for nearly 17 years, he has a daughter and three grandchildren. “I’m a conservative Christian person. I always put God first in everything I do…” His bachelor’s degree in Accounting comes from Stephen F. Austin University. He’s been a member of the Canton Lion’s Club for six years. His experience includes working for the Van Zandt Auditor’s and Treasurer’s Offices since May of 2009. He’s done the payroll for all VZC employees, the State reports that have to be turned in every quarter; and if elected, he promised to run the office of Treasurer with honesty and integrity. “If I had to go into office tomorrow, there would be no hesitation, and no training needed.”
Gina Cantrell said that though she does not have an accounting degree, she claims a vast knowledge of finance through years of experience in daily operations of public and private school administration, county administration and private organizations. “Financial knowledge, you do not always learn from a textbook or classroom. I have worked for the Dallas Independent School District as a business office manager, I have experience in budget management…purchasing, payroll, payroll taxes, workmen’s comp, employee insurance, human resources, collections, accounts payable, and accounts receivable… I also have experience in grant writing applications.”
She worked four years in the Kaufman County Clerk’s Office, as a Collection Agent and Deputy Clerk in the Court Division. She’s been married 43 years, has three children, six grandchildren, and one great grandchild. She has lived in Van Zandt County for more than 30 years.
What procedures would you implement in the Treasurer’s Office to avoid payment of duplicate invoices and of vendors not receiving payment in a timely manner?
Edwards said that once you put invoices into the Net Data System, it’s supposed to recognize every invoice entered. It will flag duplications. “The problem is, a lot of people that turn invoices in, don’t have invoice numbers. My recommendation is…to incorporate some number, that you never use over, which is the date…if they don’t have an invoice number, so that it won’t get duplicated.”
Cantrell said that she normally remembers what she has paid and hasn’t paid. As far as implementing new procedures, she wasn’t sure what would be necessary without looking at the system first; and researching the issue.
If the office is a one-employee office, how would you divide responsibilities to ensure proper controls are in place to reduce fraud and risk?
Cantrell answered, that where she works now, there are three peoples’ signatures required to make payment. She said that she would involve the Clerk’s input to verify everything is correct.
Edwards explained the current process, in which there are three people involved in approval of payments, before a check goes out the door, in order to prevent fraud.
The Primary Election is Tuesday, March 6, 2018, and determines which one candidate in each major party will be placed on the ballot in the November General Election. Early Primary voting begins Tuesday, February 20, and goes through Friday, March 2.