Heather Banks McNeal choked up a bit after being sworn in as the new Bulloch County clerk of courts.
She said she didn’t expect the outpouring of support by family and friends, including some former co-workers who were already court officials. The courtroom, upstairs at the 1894 courthouse, was nearly filled for the ceremony Monday afternoon.
“It’s just an honor to have all of y’all here today. I didn’t expect this. I’m very humbled because it took a lot to get to this point,” McNeal said, apologizing as she paused to collect herself. “It means a lot because you guys have faith and trust in me to fulfill this role. …”
She had also just taken two oaths, both administered by Probate Judge Lee DeLoach.
By one McNeal swore or affirmed to “truly and faithfully enter and record all orders, decrees, judgments and other proceedings of the Superior Court.” By the other she promised as “an employee of Bulloch County and a recipient of public funds for services rendered … to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Georgia.”
Continuing her informal remarks she said, “… I promise I won’t let you down. I promise I take that oath very seriously.”
She then called for a round of applause for Charles Sikes, the retired Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent in charge for the Statesboro office who has served as interim clerk since the
previously elected clerk, Teresa Tucker, took a voluntary suspension last summer during a GBI investigation into mishandling of funds in the office. She and four former deputy clerks were eventually charged.
Upon pleading guilty to two felony counts of violation of oath of office, Tucker resigned effective Dec. 31, prompting the May 20 nonpartisan special election.
McNeal and Alvie Coes III contended to fill the unexpired term, through 2016. She won and so is now clerk of the Bulloch County Superior, State and Juvenile courts.
At Monday’s ceremony, McNeal also led a round of applause for the current staff, which consists of nine deputy clerks and several other personnel, including some from a temp agency.
“They have really stepped up to the plate,” she said, “and we’re going to be a team, we’re going to work together. There are going to be challenges, every day, I know that, and we’re just going to work through it.”
McNeal leaves her previous job as Bulloch County DUI Court coordinator, which she had held since 2011. Her old office with the DUI Court was in the courthouse, but her new office is across the street in the judicial annex.
She has 16 years experience with Bulloch County’s courts and government. 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 as assistant to the State Court solicitor general from 2000 and then as State Court administrator beginning in January 2004. She served as human resources manager for the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners, 2007-2011.
Two of her previous supervisors, Bulloch County State Court Judge Gary Mikell and Solicitor General Joey Cowart, spoke during the ceremony. Holding one of McNeal’s campaign mailings, Mikell noted those past jobs and that she holds a bachelor’s degree in justice studies and a master’s in public administration, both from Georgia Southern University.
“In a moment of epiphany it struck me that if you look at the trail of Heather’s life, it was really bringing us to this point,” Mikell said. “It was obvious that we were headed toward this moment of responsibility that we’re going to share with you today.”
On a lighter note, he said some might question her judgment in allowing him to speak, since he had hired her twice and she left him twice. Then he added that, given the opportunity, he would hire her a third time because she always did the job and exceeded his expectations.
Effingham County Clerk of Courts Elizabeth Hursey, who has held that elected post since 1985, has been advising Sikes and the staff for the past several months. McNeal spent last Wednesday in Hursey’s office in Springfield, and Hursey then visited McNeal in the Bulloch County office Friday and plans to be back Wednesday.
Hursey attended the swearing-in, as did Jenkins County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Landing, who has also provided advice and assistance to the Bulloch office during its struggles.
Since McNeal has taken office, Sikes is no longer interim clerk, but said he plans to remain as a deputy clerk to assist her through June 20. The other deputy clerks are slated to be sworn in anew today.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.