Circuit clerk moves ahead with paperless plan

Deputy clerk leading the way in saving time, money for county’s taxpayers.

By John Guevara 

Technological advancement is not the wave of the future; it is now. One of the questions people have about government is, “Why aren’t they saving my money by using more technology?”

Winnebago County Circuit Clerk Tom Klein and his deputy Tom Lawson have been laser-focused on fulfilling the mission of Winnebago County government by delivering “quality service” to the taxpayers.

The process began with the Court Case Management system went live in November 2010. “Six years ago, I was ordering 12-14 skids of paper a year,” Lawson said. Court case management was designed to serve the Circuit Clerk, State’s Attorney, and Public Defender’s offices, reducing the reliance on paper files, and the manpower needed to manage them.

According to Lawson, “We spent all our money shuffling paper.”

The County Board has been at the forefront, calling for the system to be expanded for judges to use in the courtroom. Over the past six years, former board members – including Rick Pollack, John F. Sweeney, Kyle Logan John Eckburg and myself – as well as current members Gary Jury, Joe Hoffman and Fred Wescott have all been at the forefront of increasing the return on taxpayer dollars by making courtrooms completely paperless.

Lawson has been moving the court system to paperless all along. With the Illinois State Supreme Court’s deadline for e-filing in courtrooms set for Jan. 1, 2018, the process began by determining how the Circuit Clerk’s technological infrastructure would have to change to support paperless courtrooms.

In 2015, the office purchased new storage devices with faster storage area networks (SANs). The following year, they replaced outdated databases and servers with newer faster models to handle the increased workload. The days of paying for paper, ink, storage containers, space and the people to move them have been replaced by servers, computers and printers.

There’s nothing more frustrating for taxpayers than an unfunded mandate that costs more than the old way of doing things. With the infrastructure in place, Lawson reached out to the judges to beta test moving to paperless this past January. What he didn’t want was to make a switch to paperless that cost more money or time than the current system.

“I want to make sure I haven’t slowed the court call down,” Lawson said. “Let me understand the speed of the court call first.”

Beginning with Judges Doherty and shore, he studied each courtroom, timing every exchange of paper to make sure that switching to paperless would be faster.

Seven judges of the 19 hearing cases in Winnebago County courtrooms have gone paperless since January, and another is partially so. Lawson estimates the work will be complete before the end of March this year. He is already planning beta testing e-filing in the courthouse and e-citations in March as well.

Lawson, a member of two Illinois State Supreme Court Committees, has been touring clerk offices across the state to uncover best practices. DuPage county has been paperless for years and is the yardstick against which many clerk offices measure themselves. Lawson expects to change all that.

“In two years, we will be the best in Illinois because we will be the only county the minute a document is filed that all involved parties will have access.”

Lawson maintains that the Winnebago County Circuit Clerk’s office is up to the challenge and invites anyone and everyone to take a look at what he’s doing. “I want someone to question me,” he said.

It often feels as though government moves at the speed of molasses rolling uphill. The Winnebago County Circuit Clerk’s office is doing everything in their power to make the best use of taxpayer funds to deliver a smoother, faster court process at every level of the system for less money than a paper system cost.

Hats off to Mr. Klein and Mr. Lawson for showing local governments and departments that true transparency, accountability, and a commitment to excellence can yield stellar results. If only more local elected and appointed government officials would follow their example.

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