Two hopefuls plan to run for Circuit Court clerk 3-term incumbent Mensh has no plans to quit post

October 21, 1997|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

For such an unglamorous job, the competition for Baltimore County Circuit Court clerk has been unusually fierce, with political newcomers trying for the past decade to unseat three-term incumbent Suzanne K. Mensh.

With more than a year to go before the next election, two challengers have surfaced to oppose Mensh, 68, a former Orphans' Court judge who said she has no intention of retiring.

Towson resident William "Bill" Hill, 50, a court clerk for Circuit Judge J. William Hinkel, plans to run against Mensh in the Democratic primary.

Ken D. Ridgeway II, 39, who works in the Howard County Circuit Court clerk's office and lives in Perry Hall, said he'll run as a Republican.

Both challengers said that their many years working in court clerks' offices give them more experience for the job than Mensh had when she was elected in 1986.

Mensh is paid $64,500 a year by the state to oversee 112 clerks who handle criminal and civil case files, land records, marriage licenses and trusts. Last year, said Mensh, her office processed 22,578 court cases.

Her opponents don't plan to run campaigns that directly attack Mensch. But each carefully said he would have more of an open-door policy to reduce tension in the office -- a reference to criticism of Mensh's management.

Last year, her office was the focus of controversy when Mensh called in the county sheriff to investigate her complaint that a paper clip had struck her behind the left ear, presumably launched by someone using a rubber band. No one was charged the case.

"Employees are afraid to talk. They should be able to go to her to make suggestions and they should not have to worry about repercussions," said Hill, who is known for his knowledge of court bureaucracy.

Ridgeway, who holds the No. 3 job in the Howard court as the assistant chief deputy clerk, said he would have a more "hands-on management style" and would help cross-train clerks to do various jobs.

Mensh has been quietly criticized by some of her employees for spending too much time in her large corner office.

"I don't linger over the employees because I sense it makes them nervous," she said, adding that "I do walk around and I do talk to employees."

Since she was elected 11 years ago, Mensh said she has improved the atmosphere in the office significantly.

"I opened it up by advertising for jobs," she said, adding that her hTC predecessors were known for hiring political favorites. "The idea of hiring on merit was the practice I implemented."

Although Mensh also hired the first African-American employees, Hill said she has not done enough to open jobs to people of color.

Hill notes that the clerk's office has only nine black employees -- including himself. He said many African-Americans who work elsewhere in the judicial system "feel as though there are no opportunities" in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

Mensh responds to the criticism by saying: "I'm the first clerk who opened it up in Baltimore County and hired African-Americans. I hire on merit, not on color."

Although her two opponents say they won't get involved in dirty politics, Mensh has seen plenty.

In 1990, when an employee, A. Gordon Boone III, ran against Mensh, he sued to block her from disciplining him for not returning to work from a leave of absence. Boone used the leave to run against his boss.

During that campaign, Mensh publicized that Boone had been given probation before judgment for driving while intoxicated.

Despite such tough campaigns, Mensh said she loves politics and is full of "vim, vigor and vitality".

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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