Walker County Probate Judge-elect A. Lee Tucker of Sumiton wants to look at temporary satellite offices, as well as a system where standing in line for tags is replaced with seated visitors waiting …
Walker County Probate Judge-elect A. Lee Tucker of Sumiton wants to look at temporary satellite offices, as well as a system where standing in line for tags is replaced with seated visitors waiting for a number to be called.
Tucker, 63, will take his oath of office at noon on Monday, Jan. 14, on the front steps of the Walker County Courthouse. (Circuit Judge Judge Hoyt Elliott's courtroom will serve as an alternate location in case the weather turns bad.) The current probate judge, Rick Allison, will swear in Tucker.
He noted Thursday he was careful not to overlap on the 2 p.m. swearing in ceremony for Sheriff-elect Nick Smith in District Judge Henry Allred's courtroom.
Tucker defeated John Mark Dutton in the July 17 Republican runoff last year by a vote of 5,913 (52.58 percent) to 5,332 (47.42 percent). He faced no Democratic or independent opposition in November's General Election.
Noting he had practiced law for 34 years, with much of that involving probate work, the attorney said he has been in the transition of shutting down his law practice so that clients, including those with active cases, are taken care of. The process has gone smoothly.
"Steve Gravlee has practiced in the office with me for a number of years, and he is going to take over some. A couple of other attorneys are doing things he doesn't do," he said. "I have my last court as municipal judge in Sumiton on the (Wednesday, Jan. 9) next week."
He said the process has been "exciting but bittersweet at the same time, because of how long I've been practicing. I've had a lot of clients to call me and say, 'What are we going to do now?' But I've got everyone taken care of."
Tucker said he has been trying to take advantage of Allison's knowledge before he retires from the office after 24 years, visiting the office about a couple times a week since the runoff. He was seen getting input from Allison at testing of the election machines in November, just before the General Election.
Allison recently noted his predecessor, the late Stanley Wade, allowed him to come in almost every day and watch Wade in court and learn from him. He said Tucker is doing much the same thing now, although he "may not be quite as green in some areas as I was. But there is a lot that this office deals with." He feels Tucker will be "ready on day one," with employees being able to also help in the education.
Tucker said the visits to the Probate Office allowed him to learn more about the elections last year, as well as numerous administrative aspects of the office.
"It has been non-stop," he said of the process. "There have been a lot of moving parts to take care of. It was not just as simple as winning the election and 'here we go.' I want to make sure that it is seamless and that I do good service for the public.
"Rick has run a real good office. I want to take advantage of what he has done well and see what can be changed and make it better so that it is streamlined for the public. That is really a goal."
Tucker, noting he has a good rapport with the employees, said he has gotten some feedback from them and will do more of that. However, he has not tried to overstay his welcome at this time and be respectful.
"I've tried to be cognizant that this is Rick's office and that he has been extremely helpful," he said, noting "I'm not the probate judge yet." He added, "We're friends and it has been a very good transition."
As for future plans, Tucker said the office already has a good amount of online access, "but it is not as accessible as it needs to be. I want to do more. I want to look at what we can do more in the physical footprint out here in terms of where it is easier for the public.
"One thing I've talked with areas of the county about is possibly seeing if there is an ability to create a satellite office from time-to-time in either Carbon Hill or East Walker or Curry — whichever area so we can do it. I want to look and see if there is an ability to do that so that we can serve those areas where people have trouble getting out."
He said they would be "temporary," as he thinks the county's stretched finances would not handle full-time satellite offices. However, he hoped to create better access in areas, particularly where "dead spots" exist in broadband internet service coverage, as some people cannot use online services as a result.
"For the legal community and the people handling their commitments and the probates of wills, I want to make it so that it is a very streamlined process so that everyone knows what is expected, so there is no question about what is being done or what I expect for them as a judge," Tucker said.
Improving some online services would involve looking again at what can be changed or need to be changed with existing contracts, he said, as well as what the budget will allow.
"The services they have now are pretty good, but everything is getting better over time in terms of that. I am really encouraged when they roll out that 5G, if that is going to solve a lot of the problems," he said.
He said the office's budget is in good shape at the moment, although he will not have much of an effect until he starts working on the Fiscal 2020 budget later in the year.
Tucker said as far as the lines for tags and licenses, he wants to look at possible ways that could be setting up a seating area instead.
"Instead of having to stand in line and wait, you are doing a numbering system so you can sit down and wait until your number is called to come do your thing," he said. "It will not be so stressful, especially for an older client or someone who has some sort of disability. I'm really wanting to look at doing that."
He also noted that reminders are sent out to renew tags and one can renew online. "You can't transfer the vehicle. There are some things you can't do. But a renewal can be done online," he said. "You can mail it in or do it online. You can do both," although an small convenience fee is involved.
Tucker said he also wants to look at what needs to be updated in the office. As Jasper is growing and Jasper Main Street and downtown revitalization has taken off, he said he wants "the building to really fit in with what the Main Street Jasper is looking at, so that it presents well. That is something I am going to look into also so that we can get involved with. I think that is a terrific thing, and I want us to be a part of it."
He said he has already held discussions with a couple of people on ideas, and added any changes would have to look at what can be done in terms within limits for historical preservation. The office was built in 1905.
Tucker said as for elections, Allison allowed him to attend some helpful training sessions for poll workers last year, which allowed him to meet some of the poll workers.
"We've had a lot of good people who have been helping for a lot of years" at the polls, he said. "We're dependent upon those good people to work as the poll workers." He also will look at recruiting new poll workers and ways to make voting smoother.
He pointed out Secretary of State John Merrill's plans to convert printed poll lists across the state to electronic poll books in the form of iPads. Once in office, he plans to talk to Merrill to talk to Tucker to find out more details on how it would help the county.
He also said he was also satisfied with the security of the current voting system, noting it still works after many years of use. He said a key is to continue training so that spoiled ballots are dealt with properly to prevent confusion.
As for court proceedings, Tucker noted the Code of Alabama has to be followed and he has done probate work for most of his legal career. "Probably the easiest thing I'm going to have to do is act as a judge and do those adoptions and the probate of estates," he said, saying those were second nature to him.
Tucker said as for performing marriages, he said, "I'm going to follow the law, but at this point in time I'll issue the licenses but I'm not intending to do any marriages. I'm going to follow what everyone else is doing right now."
Allison decided to drop performing all marriages once the same-sex rulings came down in 2015.
Asked what he had learned the past few months, "as an attorney practicing for 34 years, I know I don't know it all. I know there is always an ability to learn and find out more," he said. "The amount of money that goes through here, how important it is for the dispersion and how it goes through it, there is probably more of that than I knew to begin with," Tucker said. "Knowing the administrative side, that is something I've tried to pay attention to and learn more of in terms of" the tags and the business licenses, such as in timing.
"It has been very interesting to learn that part. That is something that is not second nature to me. The judicial side will be the easy part. The other part is going to be challenging, but it is going to be fun," he said.
Tucker said he has talked some with Civil Service Board on procedure, and added that the office has good employees. "I'm not expecting there to be very much turnover at the moment," he said, saying what he is learning will be used for any new hires "down the road."
Asked if there was anything else he wanted the public to know, he said, "Just make sure that Walker County knows I am going to work hard for them. I am somebody who is a worker. You probably saw that from the campaign. I'm going to get out and work hard every day for them."
Demonstrated he was hands-on, Tucker even assisted in helping to take down the office Christmas tree on Thursday.
Allison "was on the ladder and I was holding the ladder. Then we were carrying the tree upstairs," he said.