Election 2020: Cybersecurity emerges as issue in clerk of courts race

Montgomery County Clerk of Courts Mike Foley, left, will face Democrat Zach Dickerson in this November's election. SUBMITTED

Credit: SUBMITTED

Credit: SUBMITTED

Montgomery County Clerk of Courts Mike Foley, a Republican in office for two years, will face Democratic challenger Zach Dickerson, an attorney who works in information technology, in this November’s election.

The race is punctuated by questions over a May security breach in the office’s computer system that resulted in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Gregory Singer directing Foley to hire an outside vendor to perform a technology audit of the office and provide a written report on steps to control the attack and prevent one in the future.

Dickerson questions Foley’s fitness for the job over the incident that disrupted some of the office’s functions for nearly two weeks.

“We’ve seen incompetence with how Mr. Foley handled the cyberattack,” Dickerson said.

The Montgomery County Common Pleas Court’s General Division experienced a “severe business interruption” from about May 3 through May 15, according to a letter sent by Singer to Foley. The attack affected key court functions, including the electronic filing and case and document management systems “that may have resulted in the loss or corruption of court data,” according to Singer’s letter.

Foley disputes the severity of the security breach and said the office has “been diligent” in its efforts to prevent lost or compromised data.

“I wouldn’t really call it a cyberattack. There was malware that came into the county network and it did affect about six or seven other departments in the county,” Foley said. “It didn’t really affect any day-to-day operations.”

The county’s data processing department did detect a malware attack but quickly identified and quarantined the malware, preventing spread, according to the county.

“The main county network was unaffected. However, the Clerk of Courts has their own network, managed by their own IT department, that was impacted by the malware. This attack led to downtime with their E-Filing system. Fortunately, no other departments experienced difficulties as a result of the attack,” says a statement from the county.

Foley said proper protocol was followed and his office quarantined the malware. Devices were then removed from the network and cleaned. Computer backups were restored and hardened to prevent further attacks while antivirus software was reinstalled, Foley said.

“Fortunately, the courts were only running at about 10% capacity due to the pandemic and our office had other methods available for accepting court filings as to not adversely affect normal operations,” Foley said.

The county clerk’s office is responsible for receiving and maintaining legal documents for Montgomery County Common Pleas Court, Domestic Relations Court, two county municipal courts, the state’s Second District Court of Appeals and five auto title offices. The clerk oversees a budget of about $9.5 million and has a staff of about 105 employees, according to the county’s 2020 budget.

Foley, of Oakwood, first ran for the position in 2012, losing to Democrat Greg Brush. Brush was then re-elected in 2016 but retired in the middle of that four-year term, prompting a 2018 election to fill out the remaining two years on Brush’s term. Foley won that election over Russ Joseph, who was later named Montgomery County treasurer.

Dickerson, a Miami Twp. resident, ran in 2018 for an Ohio House seat, losing the 42nd District race to Republican Niraj Antani.

The clerk of courts job will pay $113,000 in 2021, according to the auditor’s office.

Following is a Q&A with the candidates.

Q: What is the most important responsibility of the Clerk of Courts?

Dickerson: The clerk of courts first and foremost fundamental duty is to protect and maintain public records. The clerk is the official keeper of court records. And I think that’s where Mr. Foley failed. With the cyberattack that happened, the judges demanded an outside vendor be brought in to clean up a pretty big mess. And I think the reason is pretty simple, I don’t think Mike Foley is qualified to do that job.

Foley: The most important responsibility of the Clerk of Courts is to responsively, effectively and efficiently operate the separate and distinct departments and divisions of the office. In total, the comprehensive operation of the office is complex in nature and broad in scope. Our Municipal and Legal Divisions are inherently different than our Auto Title Division, but all three are equally important to the interest of justice and the public good. Our courts and our community expect the best performance and the best customer service that local government can provide.

Q: What makes you qualified for this job?

Foley: My tenure as clerk of courts has been one of increased effectiveness, transparency and fiscal responsibility. I’m a former Ohio deputy registrar, Army veteran and small business owner who believes in running a government office efficiently. While many local public offices spend taxpayers' money irresponsibly, I have already returned over $3 million back to Montgomery County in the last two years by running the office responsibly and with fiscal restraint. Additionally, our quality customer service has meant the return of customers once lost. Regional car dealers are now choosing our office over other counties for their auto title services, bringing in millions of dollars for Montgomery County. I’m most qualified for this job because, unlike my opponent, I’ve been in public and private sector management roles throughout my entire career.

Dickerson: It is absolutely critical for the clerk of courts to have a background in law and technology because both of those things go to the heart of this job. I’m the only candidate that brings that to the table. I’m a licensed attorney. I have a decade of experience at one of the largest legal technology companies in the world. Everything I’ve done in my professional life for the last 10 years — more actually — has prepared me to be the clerk of courts. I think that unique background of both law and technology, hands down makes me the most qualified candidate in this race.

Q: What is the biggest challenge currently facing the office? How will you address it?

Dickerson: One of the key pieces of technology the court relied on for its daily operations is called CourtView. That is our case management system where all the ongoing matters get organized and tracked. The version of the software that we’re using right now is going to be retired soon. Because it’s old, the company’s taking it off the shelves. That means we’re going to have to select a new case management system. This will be a multi-million dollar purchasing decision for the county government. I think it is in our best interest that somebody with a technology background have a seat at the table when that decision is made.

Whatever new case management software we pick, the clerk is going to have to oversee the migration of all the content to the new system. That is a massive and complex task. We really need somebody that knows what they’re doing and given my background, I think I’m the best person for that job.

Foley: Every local government office, in my opinion, should be most focused on the two most pressing challenges in today’s environment: technology and customer service. I ran for the office on these two priorities, and they remain my top focus. In 2020, there are seemingly endless technological solutions for tasks or challenges being faced by government agencies. When examining such solutions, there has to be a determination made based on the quality and the cost effectiveness of the various options. Our office has implemented systemwide solutions that technology has made possible, but we have done so in a fiscally responsible manner. Secondly, customer service must always be at the foundation of what any government office does, no matter the specific duties. I run the Clerk of Courts with the same dedication to customer service that I’ve shown in my small businesses for the last 30 years.

Q: Why is the Clerk of Courts position important to citizens of Montgomery County?

Foley: In any county in Ohio, the Clerk of Courts is the engine of the local court system. It is the Clerk’s Office that is responsible for receiving, docketing, indexing, certifying, and preserving court documents and other legal filings. Without an efficient clerk’s office, there can’t be an efficient local court system. The residents of Montgomery County deserve a court system that functions well and as it is intended. While our two judicial divisions are often highlighted, it is our Auto Title Division that the public knows best. Last year alone, the Auto Title Division processed over a quarter million auto and watercraft titles and issued nearly 9,000 United States Passports. Just as we have a responsibility to the courts, we have a responsibility to the general public to ensure that their vehicles are properly titled and that they have efficient access to passport services.

Dickerson: It’s a vital role in county government. It’s not a high-profile job, but as the administrator of the courts, the clerk is responsible for keeping the justice system running and safeguarding public records. It’s really important to have a competent and qualified person in that position. If the people want an effective and efficient courthouse, they should care about who’s elected to do this job.

Q: Why should voters pick you over your opponent?

Dickerson: It is common sense that the person we hire to run our courthouse should have a legal background. I’m the only candidate that has it. I think if you look at our records and our resumes, I hope voters see that I am the most qualified candidate on the ballot this year because if I’m elected, I will do a good job.

Foley: Like other countywide elected positions, the clerk of courts is an administrative management position. Whether as a small business owner, an Ohio deputy registrar, or the clerk of courts, I have managed public and private sector entities for 30 years. To my knowledge, my opponent has never managed anything! If he would be elected to this critical position, this will be his first job in management. Serving as clerk of courts, and being responsible for the broad and complex enterprise that comes with the role, is not one that should be left for on-the-job training. The citizens of Montgomery County deserve a clerk of courts with a proven record of successful management of personnel and diverse operations. My opponent just doesn’t have the experience he needs to be successful in this role.

Q: What new initiatives would you bring if elected?

Foley: All of our divisions are busy working on truly transformative initiatives that will usher in new services for the residents of Montgomery County. Three such initiatives are: e-citations, electronic search warrants and live scan fingerprinting.

The Municipal Division will be accepting e-citations from many participating law enforcement agencies by the end of the year. The issuing officers will now be able to swipe an offender’s drivers license and select the appropriate charges and degrees from the Ohio Revised Code. Both of these functions will serve to auto-populate the citation, save time and create less room for human error. The citations will then be electronically imported into our case management system and assigned a case number. This new innovation will allow clerks and law enforcement officers more time to focus on other tasks and customer service.

Electronic search warrants will provide local judges with the ability to have immediate remote access to assist law enforcement agencies in critical times. The technology will also eliminate unnecessary travel from a crime scene. Having the ability to remotely review search warrants benefits law enforcement, judges and clerk staff.

Live scan fingerprinting provides the court with the ability to fingerprint individuals while onsite at the court, alleviating the need for individuals to enter the jail or the sheriff’s department to be fingerprinted. This technology will reduce the risk of exposure in a pandemic, but will also provide the ability to electronically submit criminal and traffic transactions directly into FBI and BCI databases. This will save time in receiving and accessing fingerprint results.

Dickerson: There’s technology out there for e-citations. If someone’s issued a traffic ticket, the highway patrol can put that into a computer system. It works in a lot of other counties that leverage this technology. Once it’s put into the computer by law enforcement, it can be electronically sent to the municipal court where that traffic ticket can be dealt with. I’ve been told that in Montgomery County, the way that our system works is that it’s put into the computer system by law enforcement and then a physical paper copy has to be delivered to the municipal court where a court employee has to type it back up and put it back into a computer system. I’m not sure why we’re not using that technology, but I would like to investigate it and figure out if we can implement it because that just seems like an inefficient waste of time and money.

When I decided to run I was thinking about what I would do in this position. The clerk of courts has a very unique position with broad reach and exposure to the Dayton legal community. I would like to start an internship program that helps connect University of Dayton law students to local practitioners. As somebody who’s been to law school, I know that hands-on, real-world practical experience is the most valuable thing you can do to prepare to practice law. If I can use my position as the clerk of courts to help our students get that real-world experience, I would love to do it, because it’s good for the students and it’s good for our community.

Q: What initiatives have you brought to past positions/organizations? Please explain the results.

Dickerson: After COVID hit and it was announced that the Ohio primary election was going to be moved to April and be almost exclusively by mail, I realized this was going to be a big problem. I voted by mail before, but a lot of people haven’t and the process can be confusing. In order to help people, I built a new website with all of the information voters in Montgomery County needed. It’s mailinmyvote.com. Voting is a civic duty and I wanted to do my part to help people participate.

Foley: Most of my adult life has been dedicated to customer service — always trying to exceed customer’s expectations. I came to Dayton nearly 25 years ago to open First Watch restaurants, attempting to always have a good product, a clean environment, but most of all to provide excellent customer service.

Q: Why do you want to be Clerk of Courts?

Foley: I’m currently your clerk of courts, and one of the aspects I enjoy most about being the clerk of courts is providing services that go beyond simply what this office is required to do by law. For example, I founded Montgomery County’s first courthouse Help Center that brings resources to our county’s most underserved communities. The Help Center is located in the downtown courthouse, but also travels to neighborhoods throughout Montgomery County to reach people where they live, work and raise their families. We bring education, legal information and access to programs and resources than can transform lives.

Additionally, our office implemented a text message notification system that defendants and others can use free of charge. This service cuts down on the amount of warrants issued to area residents who may miss court because of a lack of accessible information.

Being in a position to improve people’s lives in meaningful ways is one of the many reasons that I would like to continue serving as our clerk of courts.

Dickerson: This is work that I love. I’ve spent my whole career working at a legal tech company that supports judges and lawyers. I would like to do for the county government what I’ve been doing in the private sector. It’s work that interests me. I know a lot of people would probably look at what the clerk does and say that sounds terribly boring. But for me, this is what I’ve spent my whole professional career doing. I would like to take it to a new venue.

Name: Zach Dickerson

Age: 40

Residence: Miami Twp.

Family: Married

Political party: Democrat

Political experience: Board of Zoning Appeals (2019–present in Miami Twp.) and Chairman of Rules Committee for Montgomery County Democratic Party (2019–present)

Education: BFA from Texas State), law degree from University of Denver

Current employment: research manager at LexisNexis (2008–present)

Website: www.votezach.com

Name: Mike Foley

Age: 52

Residence: Oakwood

Family: Daughter, Faye, 15

Political party: Republican

Political experience: Currently serving as Montgomery County clerk of courts

Education: Ohio State University Bachelor’s degree in hospitality management/finance; FINRA-Investment Licenses (series 6/63); State of Ohio active life insurance and health insurance licenses; Academy of Health Sciences-U.S. Army (medical specialist)

Current employment: Montgomery County clerk of courts, small business owner

Website: mcclerkofcourts.org

Election 2020

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