New Pasco clerk seeks technology upgrades, more

New Pasco County Clerk & Comptroller Nikki Alvarez-Sowles isn’t wasting much time in trying to implement some new initiatives within the clerk’s office.

She was formally appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last month, following the retirement of her predecessor, Paula O’ Neil.

The new clerk outlined a number of her ideas during an Aug. 27 East Pasco Networking Group breakfast meeting in Dade City.

Newly appointed Pasco County Clerk & Comptroller Nikki Alvarez-Sowles was the featured guest speaker at a recent East Pasco Networking Group Meeting in Dade City. (Kevin Weiss)

One of her primary aims, she said, is to boost the office’s technology capabilities, which will improve efficiency and cut costs in an agency that staffs over 300.

The technology improvements include the development of a case management system, which would provide electronic court files to the county’s Sixth Judicial Circuit, she said.

Alvarez-Sowles pointed out that Pasco County is the only one out of 67 counties in the state that still requires paper files.

That system costs her office time and money, she said.

“We have this huge, expensive budget related to paper…so what we’re trying to do is leverage our technologies,” she said.

Related to that, Alvarez-Sowles said her office is developing an automated docket program to streamline simple actions, such as indexing case numbers “to take the workload off of the team, so they can focus on the more complex and complicated functions.”

Alvarez-Sowles said she’s also looking into the feasibility of organizing attorney consultations within the clerk’s legal resource center at both county courthouses in Dade City and New Port Richey — to help unrepresented individuals or those unable to afford an attorney in civil matters related to divorce, residential landlord/tenant, small claims and so on.

The program would model larger counties, such as Orange, Palm Beach and Pinellas, Alvarez-Sowles said, whereas the clerk’s office partners with local general practice attorneys to offer 15 minutes or so of legal guidance, at a rate of about a $1 per minute. The program could take at least a year to implement, she said.

Alvarez-Sowles said the affordable consultations “wouldn’t create an attorney-client relationship, but it just gives (unrepresented individuals) the ability to maneuver through and know that they can do it on their own.”

She underscored the need for such a service in the county: “So many times, people come to our front counter and we cannot give them legal advice. We know that they need to file a motion, but we can’t say, ‘You need to file a motion,’ because we’ll get in trouble for the unauthorized practice of law…”.

More generally, Alvarez-Sowles in her new role said she wants to build upon the office’s values of compassion and helpfulness toward others.

“When someone comes to our office, we don’t judge them,” the clerk said.

“People coming into our world in the clerk’s office, for the majority, they’re on like the worst time of their life. They’re coming in, they’re scared, they’re stressed out, they’re hurt, they’re angry, they’re not in a good place.

“We can pull up their case information and see what’s going on in their life very quickly  and easily, but at any time, any one of us could be on the other side of that counter… so whatever it is, we’re here to help them find a better day, we’re there to help them get to that better day.”

Alvarez-Sowles is the county’s eighth clerk and comptroller.

She was named an interim successor by Sixth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino, upon O’ Neil’s retirement on July 1. She received DeSantis’ appointment on Aug. 9.

Alvarez-Sowles is filling out the balance of term for the post vacated by O’ Neil.

The new clerk said at the breakfast meeting she plans to run for election in 2020. “I will be putting my name in. I do intend to run,” she said.

Prior to her appointment, Alvarez-Sowles was serving as the clerk’s office chief operations officer (COO) under O’ Neil since 2010, a position she said is still unfilled.

The transition to the more senior role has been seamless for her, she said, however, it comes with added responsibility.

“There has been no hiccups, nothing that has tripped me up,” Alvarez-Sowles said. “The difference is before, I would do the research and make a recommendation. And now, I make the decision, so the pressure is a little more weight on the shoulders.”

The new clerk also gave kudos to her predecessor.

She said of O’ Neil: “I had one of the best mentors anyone could ever have asked for, her community outreach and her caring for our Pasco County.”

Born in Tampa, Alvarez-Sowles played soccer at the University of South Florida then earned her law degree at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan.

From 2000 to 2005, she practiced real estate law with the Tampa firm of Echevarria, Codilis & Stawiarski P.I., and spent a year as real estate development manager for the nonprofit Housing & Education Alliance Inc., before joining the Palm Beach Clerk & Comptroller’s Office as director of branch court services.

Alvarez-Sowles said she stopped practicing law because “it didn’t fill my cup up of what was my purpose.”

Her purpose instead, she said, lies in the public service arena because “that’s how I feel I can give back to our community.”

Published September 04, 2019

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