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Clerk of court race features rematch

DOBSON — The primary election for Surry County clerk of court includes three candidates, who are all Republicans, with no Democrats having filed to run for that office this year.

One is incumbent Neil Brendle and the former clerk he defeated in a party primary in 2018, Teresa O’Dell, en route to overcoming a Democratic challenge in the November general election that year.

The third candidate in the 2022 race is Melissa Marion Welch, who has many years of experience as a clerk’s office employee.

The same set of questions was posed to all three, designed to help voters learn about their backgrounds and positions on key issues in order to make informed choices.

Listed in alphabetical order, the candidates and responses include those of:

Neil Brendle

Tell citizens a little about yourself.

Answer: My name is L. Neil Brendle, clerk of Superior Court for the county of Surry. I thank you for the opportunity to bring attention to the office.

I have served for the last four years in this capacity, am 45 years old and a resident of Dobson. I was appointed in December of 2000 as a magistrate judge for Judicial District 17-B, and served here in Surry for almost 17 years.

Additionally, I have worked many years in the grading, highway building and public utilities construction industries. I am a graduate of Gardner-Webb University, Surry Community College and have completed many hours of education at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

I am a follower of Jesus Christ and a conservative Republican individual rooted in the Constitution of our great nation. I have been a lifelong sportsman with a love of the outdoors and shooting sports. I am blessed to be a father of two bright, caring, loving daughters; husband to an incredibly supportive wife; and have five amazing dogs.

Question: Why are you interested in serving as clerk of court?

Answer: I was born and reared in Dobson, where my parents were public servants in differing capacities. I learned from a young age the value and reward of helping others. My mother was a town commissioner in Dobson for many years until her death. She operated the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles License Plate Agency in Dobson, and was perhaps my biggest influence in dealing with the public. No matter how difficult or time-consuming, each individual she dealt with was as important as the next.

My father served as a magistrate, a law enforcement officer with the state Department of Insurance and later owned a construction company where I worked for many years. Throughout high school and college, I was a coach and referee in youth sports, which laid the foundation for serving others. At the same time, I was working for my father long hours in adverse conditions at night and on holidays which made me appreciate the value of hard work.

I still draw upon the passion for public service and work ethic instilled in my youth every day. For the past almost 22 years I have had the opportunity to help people daily, and to be honest, I have received the greater blessing.

As a magistrate and now clerk of Superior Court I’ve honed and developed skills that no other candidate possesses. I’ve assembled a team of staff whose skills and assets rival and surpass any other workforce I have ever witnessed. My desire to continue to serve has nothing to do with a title, power or position; but solely the opportunity to lead and serve others without delay, provide equal and ease of access to justice and to utilize my skills helping others. My judicial experience equips me better than others. I have a passion and desire that is unparalleled.

Question: What do you consider the two most important issues now facing the clerk’s realm of responsibility and how will you address them?

Answer: The greatest challenge is also the largest challenge facing us since the unification of our court systems in the early 1960s. We are about to embark on the inevitable journey of modernization, by transforming our courts to a paperless system. This initiative by the N.C. Judicial Branch will have innumerable benefits, among them streamlining the court processes, increasing and easing access to the courts, improving efficiency and providing a continuity of service that is necessary as witnessed by interruptions such as the pandemic we just experienced.

I also serve as a member of a technology committee comprised of a small number of clerks across the state, which allows me to be a participant as well as stakeholder in implementing this change.

Secondly, the increased caseload we have seen is unprecedented. Our office has been phenomenal in dealing with the workload increase as well as reduction of backlog. In 2017, 58% of estates cases had not been compelled for filings. In 2019, just months after I took office, we had reduced that to 41%, and today I am proud to say we have reduced that to less than 19%.

While initially this accomplishment appears monumental, its value increases when you consider we had an overall annual increase of almost 300 case filings additionally in that category more than any year ever. This speaks volumes to the increase of efficiency of our staff. I also serve on a state clerk resource committee, and am committed to increasing the benefits our staff deserves, which will aid in the recruitment and retention of valued employees.

Question: What makes you the best choice for the office you are seeking?

Answer: Countless attorneys, self-represented litigants, judicial officials, law enforcement officers and many members of the public have stated the improvements of the environment at the Surry County clerk of Superior Court’s office since I took office. Our courts and services here are regarded as some of the most productive, efficient, secure and accurate anywhere. I have made many changes and program implementations that have produced profound benefits.

The improvement and development of interagency relations, cultivation of workforce and changes to the environment and atmosphere have been instrumental in improving productivity and efficiency. Also, the desire to be a good leader is imperative. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”

Our staff includes some of the most skilled, knowledgeable, competent and kind individuals you will ever encounter. They are constantly provided and take advantage of training, cross-training and continuing education opportunities.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we were always open and provided access to the courts as required by our state Constitution. My background in human resource management, business administration and project management; my judicial experience; and unending desire to serve the public are all assets that elevate me as a choice for this office.

It’s difficult to summarize in a few words 25-plus years of experiences in these different areas, so I encourage anyone to reach out to me. My office door is always open, and one of the best parts of my job is the time spent meeting and talking with the public.

Teresa O’Dell

Tell citizens a little about yourself.

Answer: My name is Teresa O’Dell, age 60. I was proudly elected as Surry County’s first Republican clerk of court in 2014. I have 20 years of experience in the clerk’s office. I have served as an evening instructor at Surry Community College teaching about the court system and juvenile law. I also have been employed with the Yadkin County Sheriff’s Office and Adult Probation Office.

Having been born and raised in Surry County, I came from very simple beginnings. My parents are Gladys Hopkins and Elmer O’Dell. I graduated from Gardner-Webb University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. I attend Antioch Baptist Church in Mount Airy and have been a Christian since 1976. I built my first home at the age of 21 and my second home at the age 31.

A registered Republican since 2000, I am conservative and pro-life.

Question: Why are you interested in serving as clerk of court?

Answer: I want to continue serving the good citizens of Surry County. The court system requires a strong and experienced leader who is respected by attorneys, law enforcement and the general public. My door will always be open for conversation concerning the needs of the community. Trust, knowledge and good communication are the keys to a successful clerk’s office.

Question: What do you consider the two most important issues now facing the clerk’s realm of responsibility and how will you address them?

Answer: Number one, electing a clerk of court who knows how to run the office efficiently.

The second issue includes customer service, training and adding personnel to balance out the workloads. I want to be the elected clerk of court to train the next generation of deputy clerks.

Question: What makes you the best choice for the office you are seeking?

Answer: Having been the elected clerk of court, I have been on the job since Day One serving my constituents in estates, adoptions and criminal/civil filings. Every night I worked until 7 or 8 o’clock to check the work of 20 employees.

I am a proven leader with 20 years of experience in the clerk’s office and a faithful public servant for 30 years.

I am a specialist in helping people. For many years, I have been walking the extra mile to encourage people to succeed. A clerk can be many things to many people. She is a good listener, a voice for the elderly and victims of domestic violence. She is a protector of the law and procedure.

The judicial process must be productive and less stressful for those who are experiencing sessions of court for the first time. The experience must be positive. I will work closely with our resident Superior Court judge to address concerns. My goals will reflect a clerk’s office that maintains accurate records and excellent customer service.

This is one of the most important elections in our lifetime. The primary election will select your clerk of court for the next four years. There will be no general election for clerk. I am confident and prepared to return to that office.

I humbly ask for your vote.

Melissa Marion Welch

Tell citizens a little about yourself.

Answer: I’m Melissa Marion Welch, am 41 and live in Dobson. I graduated from Surry Central High School, Surry Community College and Appalachian State University. I am married to Brandon Welch from Dobson and we have three daughters, Kendall, Dannie and Charlee. My father was Danny Marion of Shoals. My mother is Debbie Hawks Dezern, from Beulah, and my stepdad is Steve “Doc” Dezern from Dobson. My mother-in-law is Judy Johnson Welch, from Ararat, and my father-in-law was Charles Welch of Dobson.

I am a Christian and a member of Salem Baptist Church in Dobson. I am presently the children’s director and oversee areas that include Vacation Bible School, children and adult Sunday School, Upward Basketball and children’s activities throughout the year. I attend a weekly women’s Bible study and am now serving my second three-year term on the Salem Christian Academy school board.

Question: Why are you interested in serving as clerk of court?

Answer: The clerk’s office is part of my life. I grew up in this office. I was 22 years old when I started my career. During my career I got married, had children, built a home and lost a parent, all while working with coworkers that were as close to me as my family. I genuinely enjoyed my job. I enjoyed coming to work and processing all the job duties that I had to complete. I felt like my job mattered and I found joy in helping people.

I enjoy passing my knowledge on to the next generation of new employees. I want to retire from the clerk’s office. I want to finish the race that I started. I always thought I would decide closer to retirement whether I would like to run for clerk of court or not.

God’s timing is in His time and not ours. I have prayed and prayed for guidance and direction with my decision to run for office. I felt at peace after months of prayer when I decided to run and told my husband my decision. I truly believe this is where I am supposed to be. I know the knowledge and experience that I have gained over 18 years has prepared me for this role.

Question: What do you consider the two most important issues now facing the clerk’s realm of responsibility and how will you address them?

Answer: An issue I will address is customer service. Employees in the clerk’s office are public servants. Being a public servant can be difficult. Most people who visit to do business with the clerk’s office come in emotional and upset. Something has happened in their life such as a criminal charge, a death in the family, losing their home or kids and they bring that frustration in with them. The staff needs to understand this and be able to address each person with compassion and patience.

Many people do not understand completely what the clerk’s office can and cannot do. We do not have forms to fix every issue you have. We can still take the time to speak to you and explain our processes, leaving you with a better understanding. We work for you, the public. Customer service needs to be at the highest level possible.

Another issue is training. It is a necessity for the staff to be cross-trained in many different areas. Life happens and someone will need to be out for various reasons. You should not be sent away without being helped due to an absence of an employee.

The elected clerk needs to fill any vacancies in a timely manner and make sure the staff is fully trained. Training is mainly on the job. Classes are offered through NCAOC (the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts). I would ensure employees completed classes offered in their areas of work. I would encourage them to retake classes during their career to be refreshed on processes and because laws change.

Question: What makes you the best choice for the office you are seeking?

Answer: I began my career in the Surry County clerk’s office in December of 2002 as a deputy clerk. I have 18 years of experience, 12 years in Surry County and six years in Forsyth County. There are three levels of employment in the clerk’s office, deputy clerk, assistant clerk and the elected clerk. Each level has its own set of duties and responsibilities. I have held two out of the three positions.

While in Forsyth County I was promoted to an assistant clerk and supervised as many as 20 employees. I also worked directly under the elected clerk. I was able to learn things in Forsyth County that I would not have been able to as a deputy clerk in Surry. I want to bring the knowledge that I gained from Forsyth back to Surry County to implement services that are not presently being offered to attorneys and the public.

I have knowledge and experience in areas such as District and Superior civil proceedings, domestic violence, courtroom clerk, jury, small claims, adoptions, name changes, motor vehicle liens, legitimations, incompetency, foreclosures, head cashier, administration, payroll, benefits and time management.

While I was employed in Forsyth County, employees from Surry and Stokes would reach out to me for help. I was also contacted by attorneys from Surry County and the public for assistance. I am still being contacted at this time for help. I believe it is the right time for me to step out in faith and run to be your next clerk of Superior Court.

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