JANUARY 1, 2018

By KEVIN CHIRI-Slidell news bureau

COVINGTON-Monumental, overwhelming, enormous.

There might not be a perfect word to describe the challenge on the horizon that new St. Tammany Clerk of Court Melissa Henry and her staff of 150 employees is getting ready to take on.

But considering the recent announcement about the first phase of major change in the parish office of records there doesn’t seem to be anything that will be too big for her staff.

Henry was elected the new parish clerk of court in 2015, ending a stay of 20 years by longtime Clerk of Court Malise Prieto, who decided against running for a sixth term. Henry, a four-year employee in the office, was urged to run by Prieto and the novice to public office was suddenly thrust into St. Tammany politics.

Henry campaigned on a platform of bringing massive technological change and upgrades to the department and she won the seat in a runoff in late 2015 before taking office in July, 2016. Since then she has vigorously pushed to bring about the change she promised.

The first major step in that direction came in the past month when she announced the St. Tammany Clerk of Court office was rolling out what she called “revolutionary changes” by offering e-filing, e-recording and e-certification. St. Tammany will be only the second parish in the state to offer such services. In layman’s terms it means a huge amount of business previously done in person or by fax with the clerk’s office is now available to be accomplished online.

But the biggest endeavor is still to come and seems so huge that few people would even consider taking it on. Henry said the department is already beginning the enormous task of scanning every piece of paper in the department so that all records in the parish will be available online.

That includes records that date back to the 1700s and will entail scanning in every land transaction, real estate transaction, civil cases, criminal cases, marriage licenses, successions, and much more. The clerk’s office has a huge area of its downstairs devoted to maintaining the many shelves of records. When asked how many actual documents will have to be scanned in, Henry just shook her head.

“Millions for sure, but we’re not even positive. There are a tremendous amount of them and it will probably take several years to do it, but it’s something we are determined to do and I am confident we will eventually get it done,” she said.

The recent announcement for e-filing, e-recording and e-certification is the first step in a paperless department, Henry noted. She began the process on Friday, Nov. 17 and is now in the process of trying to get every law office to go along with the system.

“Let’s just say that some law offices are more excited about this than others,” she said with a smile. “But the majority recognizes this is a step into the future and it will be a great benefit for everyone.”

The new systems mean that all the former documents needed to be filed and recorded by the clerk’s office can be done on the computer. Documents can be submitted electronically through four e-recording companies who provide the service for the office.

Henry said it will allow document recording 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It will reduce time it takes to file and record the documents, instantly records them from anywhere, avoids mailing costs, reduces time for office employees to come to the clerk’s office, eliminates check-writing expenses, eliminates courier costs, and allows paying for recording fees on line.

The general public, including all those in the real estate business, will have the same access to filing electronically when homes are sold or other land transactions are completed.

Customers are now able to request certified copies of real estate documents on-line as well. That service is available on the clerk’s website at sttammanyclerk.org.

“The system streamlines filing processes and eliminates the need to file paper documents at the clerk’s counter,” Henry said. “Everything we are doing is improving and upgrading the way we do business and will make us more efficient and effective for the public we serve.”

Henry said they currently have “between 40 to 50 fax filings a day. It can be up to 500 pages a day. Now you can do the whole thing with the press of a button,” she said.

The office has hired Tyler Technologies Odyssey Solution to provide the software and support for the changes, an agency that was rated very high nationally. Henry visited their main office and saw the new software in action, convincing her it was the right company to contract with.

“Minute clerks who used to push a big cart with files into court will only need their computer,” Henry said. “Every file they need will be there at the click of a button.”

Henry said that most of the 22nd Judicial District judges were excited about the changes, as is the district attorney and sheriff. The system will allow judges to electronically sign warrants 24 hours a day without having to meet with an attorney.

“This system is also expected to greatly improve the misdemeanor court situation which has always been very time consuming,” she said.

As for her own staff, which has operated on the existing system for years with paper files, Henry said she is doing all she can to help the team handle the changes.

“I told them it is like we are going from the old giant cell phones to the I-Phone 8,” she said, pulling out one of the earliest cell phones that she used as a visual display. “Our staff is excited and a little nervous and I told them that some days we will all want to cry. When that happens, I’ll pull out the Kleenex and chocolates and help everyone get through it.”