By Oscar Dorr, Charlotte Sun-Herald, 12/9/2005 Reprinted with Permission.
The office of the Charlotte County Clerk of the Court can arguably be considered the single most important county office. The Clerk’s office performs almost 1,000 different statutory and constitutional functions or duties.
Clerk of the Court is centered in the Charlotte County Justice Center in Punta Gorda. Branch offices are located in the county administration building on Murdock Circle, and the Englewood Annex at 4318 N. Access Road, Englewood.
The Clerk and staff of deputy clerks maintain records of the daily court proceedings for both criminal and civil matters, keep the trial calendar and judgment book, maintain a progress docket listing the prosecuting attorney, and issue writs for the arrest of the persons charged. The Clerk is responsible for recording the judgment of the court, and sale or distribution of the proceeds according to the terms of the judgment.
The local courts are divided into two main Divisions: circuit and county, each staffed by its own judges. The 20th Judicial Circuit divisions include civil, probate, criminal and juvenile courts.
Traffic violations (citations) issued in Charlotte County are handled by the Office of the Clerk of the Court. Traffic fines and court costs may be paid at any of the three Clerk’s offices, or you may request to attend the defensive driving course. Ticketed violators have the option of (1) paying the fine without a court appearance, (2) attending a defensive driving school course, or (3) appearing in court before a county judge.
Payments of fines or fees should be made by cashier’s check or money order. The office will accept Visa or Master Card for traffic citation payments by phone, or in person, only at the Punta Gorda Justice Center, and for non-criminal cases only
Service as a juror is an important duty as a citizen. Once a year, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles provides the Clerk’s Jury Division a database of Charlotte County driver’s license and identification card holders. When a judge asks for a jury, the computer randomly selects the names of potential jurors from the database. Those individuals receive a “summons” by mail containing instructions on where and when to report. If you are selected to serve, and you report for jury duty, you will be exempt for a period of one year from the date of your service. Those not called to report for service may be randomly selected again at any time. Failure to report when summoned, without being properly excused, can result in fines as well as being held in contempt of court. Certain circumstances will disqualify or excuse a person from jury service.
Postponement of jury duty for up to six months, to a specific date, can be granted by the Clerk of the Circuit Court to allow selection of a more convenient time to serve.
Prospective jurors will be on standby for the entire week of service, and must call the message center each night to check for reporting instructions. If you report, but are not selected, your service is complete. If selected as a juror, you must serve until the trial is complete. Being on “standby” is not considered as having “served” on jury duty.
Jurors are provided with a comfortable area where they may relax, watch television, and stay in touch with family by telephone. Even the convenience of a computer hookup for one’s laptop computer is provided.
In Charlotte County, the Clerk of the Circuit Court serves in a dual capacity as both Clerk of the Circuit Court and Clerk to the Board of County Commissioners. The Clerk of the Court serves as county auditor, and monitors the lawful receipt and expenditures of county funds. The Clerk audits, records, and is custodian of county funds. The Clerk’s office itself must follow and adhere to State Auditor General rules and regulations, and is subject to annual audits by an independent audit firm.
The administrative responsibilities of the Clerk include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Prepare and record minutes of all regular and special meetings of the County Commission.
- Attest and record all land conveyances (transfers).
- File notices of hearings on bond validation and record notices of tax levies made on property.
- Maintain the official Ordinances, Resolutions and Contracts of Charlotte County, attend meetings of the Board of County Commissioners and the Property Appraisal Adjustment Board, take minutes, record the votes, and make certified copies of the proceedings for interested citizens.
- Retain custody of the Board of County Commission and Circuit Court Seals and affix them to any paper or instrument required by law.
As Accountant and custodian of county funds, the Clerk of the Circuit Court collects fees for services, disburses funds, makes deposits, accounts for tax deed sales, county land sales, mortgage foreclosure sales, collection of fines and forfeiture, and excess fees. The Clerk also maintains a record of all taxes or other income received and disbursed by the County Board of Commissioners.
The Clerk’s responsibility includes producing the payroll for the nearly 1,100 employees of the Clerk’s office and staff, the Board of County Commissioners, and the Supervisor of Elections. With some employees represented by labor unions, some governed by Employment Rules of the Charlotte County Board of County Commissioners (with various job classifications), and contract employees such as the County Attorney and County Administrator, payroll and benefits management becomes a tremendous challenge and responsibility. In addition to the weekly payroll requirements, the Clerk is tasked with maintaining a data base for new hires, terminated employees, promotions, demotions, salary adjustments and expenses, and health benefits, plus related reports at Federal, State and local levels.
As official recorder, the Clerk is responsible for providing care for all papers or data filed in her office, so they may be readily accessible for use of her office and the general public. In addition to certifying the recording of all plats (land maps), the Clerk will certify copies of all public records and transcripts of appellate courts or other proceedings.
The kinds of written instruments required to be recorded by the Clerk upon payment of the fees prescribed by law include:
- Deeds, leases, bills of sale, agreements, mortgages, notices and claims of lien, notice of levy, tax warrants, tax executions.
- Instruments relating to the ownership, transfer, or encumbrance of or claims against real or personal property or any interest in it.
- Extensions, assignments, releases, cancellations, or satisfactions of mortgages and liens; powers of attorney relating to any instruments,
- Final decrees of divorce, licenses to practice medicine, or notices of suspension of any licenses, records of convictions for any crimes.
- Petitions for habeas corpus, adoptions, sworn statements of domicile (residence),
- Wills, codicils, veteran’s discharge papers, or any other document required or authorized by law to be recorded.
While the list may seem to contain many items of little interest to the average citizen, in fact, at some time in our lives, we will need the services of a formal recording of a piece of legal paper. For example, if you build a house in Charlotte County, or have one built by a contractor, prior to the beginning of construction you should be sure that the builder has obtained and completed a “Notice of Commencement” form which you as owner must sign. The notice is required to be recorded by the Clerk’s office, and a certified copy posted on the property. This protects you, the owner, and your property and ensures that if a lien is placed against your property during construction, you will know about it and have the matter resolved before your title is adversely affected.
If you fail to pay your contractor for work performed, or if your contractor fails to pay his laborers, sub-contractors, or materials supplier, your property can be subject to a mechanics’ lien filed by the contractor. If the subcontractor, laborer, or materials supplier has given you, the owner a “Notice to Owner” with a description of the work to be performed, he may file a lien against the property if not paid. If you have paid your general contractor, and he fails to pay his subcontractors, you may be doubly liable as a result of the lien.
If you are planning to spend more than $2,500 on the building or improvements, consult with an attorney regarding the Mechanics’ Lien Law, and meet all the requirements for recording and posting the Notice of Commencement. Before making any payments to your contractor, make sure you get a sworn statement in writing that he has paid all the bills for the job.
If you should receive a “Notice to Owner” from anyone, you should require that the contractor obtain a sworn statement in writing from each such person stating that they have been paid for all work done on your job. Even if you are borrowing money to complete the job, and the lender pays the contractor directly, be sure that the lender gets the sworn statements before making any payments to the contractor. If a Mechanics Lien is placed against your property, consult an attorney immediately.
Need a passport? Application may be made at the Clerk’s office at the Justice Center or the branch offices in Murdock and Englewood. To apply, you must personally come into any one of the three offices. You will need photo identification (driver license or government identification card, and proof of citizenship. That consists of an original or certified copy of your birth certificate bearing the seal of the issuing office, registrar’s signature, and the filing date. Naturalized citizens must provide a copy of their naturalization papers. A previously issued U.S. passport is acceptable proof of citizenship. The applicant must also provide two identical passport style photographs, in color or black and white, taken in the last six months. The Clerk is charged by law with the responsibility of proper identification of all records presented to her office.
The Clerk serves as the Clerk of the Value Adjustment Board that hears appeals from individuals dissatisfied with tax valuation of their property.
Tax certificate sales are held at public auction after receipt of the list of delinquent properties from the County Tax Collector. The Clerk’s office prepares the newspaper listing, sale notice mailings, Sheriff’s Office writs, and calculates the property’s opening bids.
The final contact with the Clerk’s office will occur after death when one’s will is admitted to probate, Should one die intestate (without a will) or if a will is declared invalid, Florida law provides for distribution of the decedent’s property. Probate court has jurisdiction over the disposition of property in accordance with the valid will, or the inheritance statute, if there is no valid will. A Circuit Court judge presides over any probate proceedings.