Race for Court Clerk Boils Down to Profile

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007

John T. Frey has been the Circuit Court clerk of Fairfax County for 16 years, and he likes to keep a low profile. It's like the common wisdom about sports officials: If you don't hear their names, they must be doing a good job.

But as Frey, 50, runs for a third eight-year term, he faces an opponent who says Frey should be doing the opposite: getting out and talking to people about how the court works and making sure it does, said Democratic challenger Dale A. Evans.

Evans, 60, a Realtor from McLean, said the court clerk should be letting Fairfax residents know how their system works and should function as an ombudsman for complaints and congratulations. "Nobody knows who he is," Evans said, "and it's probably one of the most important jobs in the county."

The clerk maintains the records of the Circuit and District courts and the county's land and probate records; oversees jury duty; and runs the marriage license, notary public and business trade-name functions. Statistically, Fairfax's courthouse is by far the busiest in Virginia.

Joseph P. Oddo, 49, a freelance writer and sales consultant from North Springfield, is also running for clerk as a member of the Independent Green Party. He said one reason he wanted to run was his party's goal of getting more candidates, and more voters, involved in the electoral process, and he would push that ideal further as county clerk.

Evans didn't get into the race until August, after another Democrat dropped out, but he quickly began challenging Frey on issues facing the clerk's office. He accused Frey of opposing legislation that would restrict access to personal information in court records. Fairfax allows anyone who pays $25 a month and signs a contract with the county to view land and court records by remote computer.

Evans said such access to that information could lead to identity theft. Oddo said he also saw protecting private information as a priority of the clerk's job.

Frey said that he opposed only legislation that would have prohibited all remote access to court records. He said that Fairfax's system is closely monitored and has existed since 1986 and that requiring people to pay monthly fees and sign contracts probably has contributed to the fact that no identity theft cases have been linked to the court system. The information is not publicly available on the Internet.

Frey also was criticized in a state audit for using a software system that is not compatible with the state Supreme Court's system for criminal cases. He said the state's system is unreliable and frequently out of service, and he is soliciting bids to install a system that would fit into the state system.

Frey's work has earned national notice. He was named Public Official of the Year by the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks last year. And this year, his office received a Best Practices award from the association for its system that placed all probate documents in electronic format.

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