Editor's note: This is the second of two candidate profiles for Bulloch County Clerk of Courts. Heather Banks McNeal is featured today. Alvie Coes III was featured Thursday.
Heather Banks McNeal says she is seeking to be elected Bulloch County clerk of courts because her experience and education fit the office and the opportunity.
"I am qualified to serve the citizens in this capacity as the clerk of court from my 16 years experience in the court system, my educational background," she said. "I just feel like now is the time for me to continue serving the citizens of Bulloch County and to be able to do it in this capacity."
Currently Bulloch County DUI Court coordinator, McNeal, 34, has served in Bulloch County's court and governmental offices in various appointed capacities since 1997. That makes for a contrast between her and the other candidate, Alvie Coes III, who says he would bring a fresh perspective from his business and nonprofit organization background.
Held with the May 20 statewide primary, the special election for county Clerk of Superior Court is nonpartisan so that the winner can be sworn in soon rather than waiting for the general election. As with the primary races, early voting is now underway.
A Bulloch County native, McNeal is the daughter of Judy Hagans Williams and the late David Banks. Historically, her family owned and operated City Dairy Company and Farm and gave Banks Dairy Road its name. Her bachelor's degree in justice studies and her master's degree in public administration both came from Georgia Southern University.
She served as deputy clerk for both the Superior Court and the Bulloch County State Court, 1997-1999, and again briefly in 2003. She worked for the State Court solicitor general from 2000 and then as State Court administrator beginning in January 2004.
From 2007, McNeal served as human resources manager for the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners. She returned to the court system with the DUI Court job in 2011.
These experiences, she says, make her ready to take up the leadership of the clerk's office from the work done since last summer by interim Clerk of Courts Charles Sikes.
"I feel like because I do have that work experience, I'll be able to go in and pick up the ball right where it stopped," McNeal said.
Both McNeal and Coes have praised Sikes, a retired GBI special agent-in-charge, for rebuilding the office's operations and accountability. He became interim clerk during a GBI investigation of mishandling of funds in the clerk's office that led to criminal charges against the previously elected clerk, Teresa Tucker, and four former deputy clerks. Tucker's guilty plea and resignation prompted the special election.
Both candidates were asked what steps they will take to ensure future accountability.
"I want to make sure that there are appropriate accounting principles, accepted business standards and superior customer service, and that transparency is implemented and then enforced," McNeal said.
Toward transparency, she wants to make regular visits to Board of Commissioners meetings to report on the work of the office and address questions and concerns.
Toward customer service, both candidates have talked about cross-training so that deputy clerks know one another's jobs.
"That way if you've got someone that's out and turn to somebody else, you don't get the response of, ‘Well, I don't know how to do that,'" McNeal said. "Everybody there is available to help the general public as they come in with whatever their specific role might be."
This addresses concerns that, in the past, processing of certain kinds of records halted when specialized employees were away.
Another area where McNeal promises to do more is in educating the public about what the clerks of the courts do. In campaigning, she said, she has discovered that many people are not aware of their responsibilities. The office serves as an official repository for real estate, loan, lien and military discharge records, as well as those of civil and criminal cases.
"One of the things that I'd like to work on if elected is getting the community more informed of these services that the clerk's office is responsible for, to better assist them in the future," she said.
Both candidates say that, upon getting elected, they would spend time learning from Sikes and clerks in neighboring counties.
In particular, Elizabeth Hursey, clerk of court in Effingham County for 29 years, has provided advice and help to Sikes and the rest of the Bulloch County clerk staff during his interim service. Sikes has offered to serve as a deputy clerk for 15 working days after the winner of the May 20 special election is installed. During that time, the clerk-elect can shadow Hursey doing her job in Effingham.
McNeal talks to Sikes regularly in her current DUI court role.
"I see him on a very regular basis because even in this capacity I do have regular interaction with that office, so yes, I have and I've had the opportunity to kind of stay up to date by asking questions as far as the progression that he's been making in the office," she said.
Sikes has talked with both candidates about the basics of the job. Both also spoke to the Bulloch County Bar Association in March by invitation from that organization of attorneys.
"The local attorneys have a lot of business in that office, and so I just thought that was a great opportunity for both he and I to hear their concerns and to get feedback from them," McNeal said.
In addition to her work with the DUI court, McNeal is an adjunct instructor for Georgia Southern's online general studies program.
She and her husband, Ryan McNeal, live in Statesboro on her family farm and are members of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. They have a 3-year-old son, Charlie.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.