Former teacher & educator Susan Kaltenbach has occupied the seat as Saginaw County Clerk for sixteen years and withstood four challenging elections since she first took office back in the year 2000, focusing her talents upon tending to the numerous and detail-oriented duties that are associated with this position.
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Sue in order for readers & voters to obtain a more complete understanding of the numerous responsibilities associated with this position, as well as glean a more in-depth perspective about what she has learned about the position during her 16-years in office. For as Oscar Wilde once noted: ‘Experience is the only teacher that gives the test first and the lesson last.’
Review: On a day-to-day basis, how much of your time is devoted to the numerous areas of responsibility that the County Clerk is charged with expediting? What is a typical day like for you?
Kaltenbach: During the ‘even’ years when Statewide and National elections are held, I would say half my time is indeed devoted to elections; but in a non-year that isn’t really the case so much. Because of all the duties this office is responsible for handling, may main job is to function as an effective administrator. I have a total of 16 employees, with half of them downstairs handling the judicial duties for the courts; and the two offices do not overlap.
Upstairs we have the ‘Vitals & Elections’ office and downstairs deals strictly with court records, which also involves gathering data for the courts. Two of my employees are hired by the Board of Commissioners, but I personally do not take minutes or prepare Board packets. Even though we have statutory duties, every county does things a little different. In small counties one clerk will handle everything, but in larger counties that is not the case. In one small county – I believe it was Lake – the Clerk is also hired as the County Administrator & Controller; but whether a county or a township clerk, they really are the backbone of county government and responsible for all records and keeping track of everything.
A typical day always involves answering lots of emails, which come from all over the world; and with the advent of digital communication, this position has truly become a 24/7 type of job. When I first came into this office one didn’t’ communicate with other local clerks that much, but now with e-mail and digital communication, the position is much more demanding because people expect an answer right away.
Most modern county clerks are working clerks now and you can no longer have these positions at a county level where an official is here in name and not working. Counties simply can’t afford it. I’m knowledgeable and its taken a long time to get to the point where I can do everything required in this office. If one of my employees is not here, or nobody else is available, I can do anything that might be required at the counter; so a big part of this position is management. This is not a policy making job, it’s a managerial administrative job that draws upon many talents.
Review: What are the most important qualities and skills for a clerk to possess?
Kaltenbach: You have to be a detail oriented person in this job, especially with the elections. You cannot have a mistake. The last place you want to be is on the front of the newspaper because of some mistake made during an election; and on election night you have eyes on you from everywhere, not just locally but nationally.
Everything in this office has a detail to it. Things have to be spelled correctly, entered correctly, and handled properly. Fortunately, my staff and I are trained. The other day I had a release of a lien with a bond to expedite, and you maybe only get one of those every few years, but this is something I learned to do through training with the Michigan Association of Commerce.
My goal is to gather a properly trained staff and enable them to do their job. You have to be very organized and cannot misfile things. I have a Masters in Library Science so fully understand the Dewey Decimal system, which is a skill that I came to this job with. These are the things that are important.
Review: Many counties have merged the offices of County Clerk & Register of Deeds in an effort to save taxpayer money. What are your thoughts concerning this?
Kaltenbach: A lot of larger counties like Oakland and Genesee and Kalamazoo have merged, but I’ve fought this proposition when it was originally presented eight years ago because as many county clerks will tell you, it’s really just an addition of another division of responsibility for you to oversee. There are no records in this office other than a couple liens that overlap with the Register of Deeds office, so there is no way my staff could go over there and trade off those duties, because none of those duties are aligned. They don’t fit well. This is what the State of Michigan doesn’t understand. So as far as savings, we would still have to hire a deputy over there that we would have to pay; and because the duties don’t align, the most you would be saving is possibly $30,000. But this would open more headaches than it would be worth.
Review: Looking back at your 16-years holding this office, what do you consider your biggest accomplishments?
Kaltenbach: I feel my biggest accomplishments involve streamlining procedures and processes here through advancing technology, and I’m fortunate that the County worked with me and allowed me to do that. The only thing that isn’t as advanced as I would like to be are the court records, but that’s because we have to work with the courts. Some judges are ready to go that way and embrace technology and others are not because it requires them to utilize things they’re not comfortable with.
I feel I’m behind in this arena, but then again, it hasn’t been until the last several months that the State Court Administrators Office has taken the bull by the horns. It’s an expensive transition to move to Windows based programs that involve scanning all documents and indexing them in a certain way so they can be seen by judges and afford computer access to certain documents. Several counties have already started this, but we’ve never had the money. In March of this year the state ordered that we have to start collecting a certain fee on every civil case filed that we must then to ship to Lansing for a technology fund so we can start to develop that.
Another accomplishment I’m proud of involves elections. Prior to me taking office we never had an elections website and I have a more active website than anybody in the county. You can email questions to me and it isn’t a static page, but contains a lot of information. You can now apply for a marriage license online and I feel I’ve brought as much technology into play at this point as we can have. I’ve really tried to make things more accessible to the general public.
I’ve also enjoyed being active with the legislative part of the statewide County Clerk’s association. Legislators are always making laws and they don’t know what we do and then pass things that makes it more difficult to accommodate the people we’re charged with serving. We have a very active legislative committee and I’m very active with the Bureau of Elections. We’re in the process of getting new equipment for next year that will keep the election process flowing properly.
I suppose the best way to sum it up is that this is a wonderful job, but it is also very demanding.