Clerk races don’t often generate much controversy.
That isn’t the case with the Barberton clerk of courts race this fall, which features a heated battle between current clerk Diana Stevenson and state Rep. Zack Milkovich.
Milkovich, a Democrat from Barberton, has come under scrutiny for delinquent property taxes, possible ethical violations and the wording of his yard signs. Stevenson, a Republican from Barberton, has taken heat for outstanding fines owed to the clerk’s office, fees that were raised during her time in the office and her staff’s customer service.
The winner in the Nov. 5 election will fill the unexpired term of former clerk Christine Croce, now a Barberton judge, that runs through January 2015.
Both Milkovich and Stevenson say they’re the best candidates for the job, pointing to their different backgrounds and the faults they see with each other.
“I am running for clerk of courts because I believe I can help more people from this seat than I can from my seat in Columbus,” Milkovich said in a written statement provided to the Beacon Journal after he refused repeated interview requests. “I intend to make the administrative functions of the courts more efficient and the office of the clerk more sensitive to the needs of people.”
“I think we have an obligation to pay our [property] taxes,” Stevenson said in a recent interview with the Beacon Journal. “I think that’s important.”
The clerk’s job, which pays about $97,000 a year, would give Milkovich a significant raise from his current salary of approximately $61,000 as a state representative.
Milkovich, 48, who is in his second term in the Statehouse, is emphasizing his ability to help and relate to people.
His first ad, which can be seen on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLrdVadNMP4, features his beat-up red pickup truck — the only vehicle he’s ever owned — and shows him riding his bicycle to go door-to-door to talk to residents.
His second ad http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVHWdykJMdk highlights how he raised funds to buy a new house for Larry Modic, a veteran whose house was torn down by the city of Akron after it was condemned for housing violations.
“Holding public office isn’t about fancy titles or fancy vehicles,” the truck ad narrator says. “For Zack Milkovich, it’s all about helping people.”
Stevenson said Milkovich’s personal-touch persona is fine but “It’s not necessarily what the clerk’s position is about.”
“It’s an administrative position,” she said of the clerk’s office, which has 13 employees. “It is ruled by statute, very numbers-driven.”
Stevenson also has criticized Milkovich for his delinquent property tax issues, involving numerous properties he has an interest in.
“Someone who is not able to manage their own personal finances and tax obligations properly cannot and should not be entrusted with the responsibility of administering and collecting millions of dollars the clerk’s office is accountable to the taxpayers for annually,” Stevenson said in a news release.
Milkovich, whose given first name is Zdravko but who is now going by Zack, has an interest in several properties that also are co-owned by Golf North Properties LLC. Summit County Fiscal Office records show:
•Golf North owes $22,128 in property taxes for four properties that have pending lien sales. Milkovich isn’t an owner of these properties.
•Amy Tarle used a Golf North check to pay $3,900 in property taxes for a property on Beardsley Street in Akron and three on Seminola Avenue in Akron on Sept. 30, according to canceled checks on file with the fiscal office. All of the properties are owned by Golf North and Milkovich.
•Milkovich owes no taxes on the Barberton house where he says he lives on his campaign website.
In his 2012 statement filed with the Ohio Ethics Commission, Milkovich didn’t list an interest in Golf North. He does, however, denote an interest in five properties, three that are co-owned by him and Golf North. He sold two properties to Golf North, one in 2009 and one in 2011. His name is listed in the mailing address of several of the Golf North properties, though the tax bills go to Golf North and not to Milkovich’s home, according to fiscal office records.
Stevenson owes no property taxes on her home in Barberton. This is the only property she owns in Summit County, according to fiscal office records.
Ernie Tarle, Milkovich’s friend and a former Akron councilman who is helping with his campaign, said Milkovich is a “silent partner” in Golf North Properties, which is owned by Amy Tarle, Ernie’s wife.
“He has nothing to do with the mistakes my wife made,” Tarle said.
Milkovich’s name isn’t mentioned in the Ohio Secretary of State’s incorporation filings for Golf North. Golf North was incorporated in 2002 by Ernie Tarle and LaVerne Mohler. The statutory agent for the company was switched from Ernie Tarle to his wife in February 2009, according to secretary of state records.
Milkovich had a complaint filed against him in late September for the wording of his yard signs, which read: “Zack Milkovich ... Clerk of Court.” The Ohio Elections Commission found probable cause that the wording was a violation because it didn’t make it clear that Milkovich isn’t the current clerk. The commission will have a hearing Thursday. After the commission’s finding, Milkovich added the word “for” to many of his yard signs.
Milkovich said after the commission’s decision that he was told by a board of elections employee that his wording was acceptable. He said in a text to the Beacon Journal, “If that was improper, it was completely unintentional.”
Stevenson, 46, who served as a magistrate for 12 years and an assistant Summit County prosecutor before this, is highlighting her legal experience.
“Keeping the best professional experience for our clerk of courts,” one of her mailers states. “Why settle for a candidate without the highest legal training? Or allow for costly on-the-job training to work with our law officers and someone inexperienced in not having legal knowledge to understand complex legal issues?”
Milkovich, though, has accused Stevenson of not being aggressive enough about going after uncollected fines owed to the court. In his written statement, he questioned different percentages she has provided to media outlets about how much she has reduced the outstanding fines during her time as clerk.
“What’s the truth?” he asked.
Stevenson said the reason for the difference in the collection figures is because they referred to different revenue comparisons. She said the collection agency she works with provided her with information earlier this month about how much the office collected in outstanding fines for her first 21 months as clerk, compared to the previous 24 months when Croce was clerk.
Stevenson said the agency found Croce collected $824,077 during her 24-month period for an average of $34,337 a month. The agency determined Stevenson brought in $1,034,251 in her 21-month period for an average of $49,250 per month. This means Stevenson collected an average of $14,913, or 43 percent, more per month than Croce during these time periods.
Stevenson said she worked with the court’s two judges to create amnesty programs to encourage people who owe the court to come in, pay part of what they owe and get on a payment plan.
As for how much overall is due to the court, Stevenson told the Plain Dealer in an article in January 2012 shortly after she had become clerk that the court had about $3.4 million in outstanding fines. She calculated, in response to a public records request by Ernie Tarle, that the court had about $278,000 in unpaid fines this year. She said she is working on figuring an updated, overall amount owed.
Stevenson said her office is doing everything permitted under state law to collect outstanding fines, which aren’t unique to the Barberton court. The fines are dispersed to the state, county and local communities.
Milkovich also questioned an increase to the court’s filing fees for “legal research.” He said he has seen conflicting information about whether the clerk is responsible for boosting fees.
“In these austere times, I think government should be tightening its belt like the rest of us,” he wrote.
Stevenson said the judges, by law, decide on the court fees and they opted in March to boost them by $3 for legal research, which is a charge permitted under state law.
On his campaign website, Milkovich promises better customer service than he says is currently being offered by the clerk’s office.
“I will also see to it that if you ever have to deal with our courts that you are given the prompt, courteous service you deserve,” the site says.
Stevenson, though, said she thinks her staff does a good job in its dealing with the public. If she’s elected, she said she’d like to explore some technological advances, such as e-filing, e-ticketing and real-time docketing that would make the clerk’s office more efficient and improve customer service.
“It is a slow process,” she said of these advances. “It costs money.”