Harris County District Clerk: Marilyn Burgess – an Exclusive Interview
We had the pleasure of sitting with Ms. Marilyn Burgess, Harris County District Clerk, where we got to discuss her deep roots in politics and future plans while in office.
Gabriel: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Marilyn: I grew up in Louisiana in a small rural community by the name of Spearsville, where I had a graduating class of 36! Both of my parents held elected offices in their lifetimes, so I grew up in a civic minded family that believed in giving back to the community. My dad held a role that was very similar to County Commissioner in Louisiana, called Police Jury. Growing up, I attended Democratic State Conventions with my parents, and later after I was an adult; my mom was elected mayor of our little town, so I guess you can say public service is in my DNA. I moved to Texas after graduating from LSU and have been a Texan ever since.
Gabriel: So you come from a political family?
Marilyn: Absolutely, I definitely come from a political family. Before my mom died, her only regret was that she waited so long in life to get started in the political arena, as she would have loved to do more. She would have made an awesome state representative! After she passed, it pushed me to want to run, and; it wasn’t too late for me. So that’s when I decided to run for public office and get involved in Harris County public service.
Gabriel: Have you made any changes during these 8 months on the job?
Marilyn: I think we have done a lot in 8 short months! One of the major initiatives I ran on was, wanting to pay the “line-level” employees in the district clerk’s office better. In order to do that, we eliminated a level of management as I thought the office was “top-heavy”. By eliminating this level, we were able to free up funds for raises for the “line-level” employees and elevate supervisors and managers. We freed up about $800,000 in salaries which we have given back in raises to the hard working front line employees.
Gabriel: Can you explain the role of ‘district clerk’?
Marilyn: Our official function comes from the Texas constitution where we are named as the official record keepers of the court systems. We are responsible for staffing each of our 90 courtrooms with a court clerk,
which includes criminal, civil, family, juvenile and specialty courts. While we have nothing to do with who’s charged or any outcomes – our clerks record everything that goes on in the courtroom.
When an attorney files a case, we accept that filing and assign it to a courtroom. We are also responsible for collecting all civil and criminal fees, all monies paid as deposits on civil cases awaiting disposition, all funds awarded to minors paid into the court registry and all criminal fines. And perhaps the duty most of the public knows us for, is our responsibility for the jury summoning process.
Gabriel: Is this a 24/7 job?
Marilyn: Yes, It constantly keeps me very busy, but I love the variety and the pace.
Gabriel: Do you have other staff? Bilingual staff?
Marilyn: Yes, I have 2 chief deputies and over 500 members of the DCO staff. We just did a survey of all of our supervisors and asked them to identify the people in their area who were bilingual in any language, not just Spanish. All departments in our structure had at least one Spanish-speaking employee. Our call center has 2 Spanish-speaking clerks, and we are adding a third one.
Gabriel: Is that the #1 language you get the most?
Marilyn: Yes, Spanish, by far is our most frequent need. We also identified through our process that we have someone who is fluent in Vietnamese and one in Hindu as well.
Gabriel: Is the paperwork in multiple languages?
Marilyn: Our jury summons is the only piece of information that we put out to the public, and it’s not in Spanish because one of the qualifications for jury duty is that you must be able to fluently read and write in English. We are looking at converting some of our standard forms in our intake areas into Spanish.
Gabriel: Anything you’d like to add or have people know about your administration?
Marilyn: During the transition I learned this office had not billed for uncollected civil fees since October 2011. As a CPA, I was shocked to hear that and said that will not be the case in my administration. We bill currently on a monthly basis, and will collect as much of those past-due uncollected fees as possible. Just last month, we passed the $1 million mark in collections, and we are very proud of that milestone.
We’ve introduced a lot of technology, mostly for services for the legal community in order to improve efficiencies and save tax dollars. For example, there is a state requirement for us to each week notify every attorney who’s had an order signed by any judge that week. Right now, we mail a postcard to meet that requirement. We expect to start sending these notifications via email within the next 60 days.
Another example is our online calendaring system. We had a lot of complaints about attorneys calling the courts to get on the judges’ docket calendars and not being able to reach anyone. This system makes it possible to schedule their times anytime, including after hours, on weekends or on holidays without the need to speak to a staffer.
We have started issuing citations electronically. When service papers are requested, they no longer have to send someone downtown to pick them up. We can now email the documentation back upon request.
We also offer on our website free background checks that anyone can access.
Marilyn: Yes, we accept and process passport applications here at the Civil Courthouse at 201 Caroline on the first floor. It’s a very quick and easy full service process, where you can also get your photo taken for the passport.
Gabriel: How do you get the public to know that you guys offer all of this?
Sarah Dugas, Communications Manager for the DCO: We have a communications department that manages the marketing and communications efforts, and we are working to revamp the website to make it easier to find options the public cares about and to access. Ms. Burgess also attends many community events. And we have our Facebook page at Harris County District Clerk where the public can keep up with the latest happenings at the DCO.
Gabriel: Is there any message you’d like to give to the Spanish community?
Marilyn: We are definitely here to serve. We are making every effort to reach out to the public and make folks aware of the services we offer and how you can access our services. We have a Community Outreach Liaison that recently attended a LULAC meeting. Anyone who has a community organization we can speak to, we’d love to do that. We are always out in the community attending events letting everyone know who we are and what we do. If you’d like for one of us to come and speak at your community events reach out to my office via phone (832-927-5770) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
About Marilyn Burgess
Marilyn Burgess is the Harris County District Clerk. She is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) with over thirty years of experience bringing fiscal responsibility and exceptional organizational skills to public and private organizations. She ran on a platform dedicated to modernizing the jury system by going all electronic, increasing juror diversity, reforming the bail system and decreasing waste and inefficiencies in the District Clerk’s Office to ensure a living wage for the hardworking professionals that staff it.
Marilyn graduated from Louisiana State University with an accounting degree that launched a successful career in business, which has included serving as the president of the North Houston-Greenspoint Chamber of Commerce and the Chief Financial Officer at a family-owned local company. It was during her work as the Executive Director of the Texas Parent Teachers Association (PTA) that she found her true calling: fighting and advocating for causes that better the lives of teachers, working- and middle-class families, single mothers, and children.
Marilyn developed her belief in hard work and public service from her parents who both held elected office in Spearsville, a northern Louisiana town of approximately 350 people. Her father represented the region in a role similar to county commissioner for twelve years. After Marilyn’s mother retired from her position as chair of the local hospital board, she too served the community as mayor of Spearsville during the final years of her life. In Marilyn’s adult life, she worked hard to build a career while raising a child as a single mother. These days, she enjoys spending time with her daughter, Lindsey, and her two wonderful grandchildren, Reagan and Geoffrey.
As District Clerk, Marilyn oversees a budget of $36 million and a staff of over 500 individuals, a responsibility to her constituents she takes seriously. Marilyn now brings her seasoned, measured, smart leadership to the District Clerk’s office, where she will work to fulfill her campaign promises to improve efficiencies, reduce costs, increase community participation, and fairly compensate the employees.