Longest-serving county clerk in state retires

By: 
Virginia Ransbottom, Staff Writer

After 40 years as Allegan County Clerk and Register, Joyce Watts is retiring Thursday, Dec. 29, with the title of the longest-serving elected county clerk in the state.

When Watts first began recording and preserving land records as the county’s chief deputy registrar of deeds in 1974, the average cost of a new home was less than $35,000, gas was only 55 cents a gallon, and job interviews were a bit unconventional.

Watts’ interview was during a root canal. Chief register Howard Strand was having the dental work done at Allegan Dental Care.

 “I was the dental assistant—there to keep him comfortable—and we got to chatting,” she said. “He noticed I worked at the Republican fair booth, handed out political materials before elections, was active in Republican functions and asked if I’d consider running for office.”

Strand’s wife had previously held the position. She was retiring and while talking with Strand later over a piece of banana cream pie, Watts accepted the job. Strand, who also sold car licenses, did not seek reelection in 1976 and Watts was elected Registrar of Deeds after winning over three male candidates in the primary and another in the general election.

Watts retained the position for another 12 years before the clerk and register positions were merged in 1988. The clerk manages elections; vital records; processes and maintains all Circuit Court files and serves as clerk to the Board of Commissioners.

While campaigning for the new position, a constituent from Plainwell asked Watts if she was old enough to run for office. After assuring him she was 32, he noticed her previous work history included teaching juvenile delinquents at Starr Commonwealth for Boys.

“He said, ‘Well you’ll do well working with county commissioners,” Watts said.

However, county commissioners didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the feisty clerk.

Watts once sued commissioners for interfering with her ability to perform her statutory duties and won.

“I was kicked out of a closed session and they could not convene without a clerk keeping record,” she said.

And although she was the first to be elected to the combined positions of clerk and register of deeds, the pay was not combined.

“They paid me to the penny what I was making after a decade at the first job,” she said.

That pay had been reduced by $2,500, while the sheriff and drain commissioner’s salaries were raised $2,500.

“Women were paid differently,” she said.

In fact, in a 1997 Republican Women’s Tribute to Watts, 9th District County Commissioner Muriel O’Leary said Watts took a job once filled by two men, for less than the price of one, and did it with integrity and professionalism.

Being a woman in office also had other challenges.

Shortly after being elected, Watts learned she was pregnant and her son Jason came along two months early. During those two months, she placed him in a crib in her office and conducted business while keeping an eye on an infant who was lulled to sleep by the tapping of keyboards and the ringing of phones under fluorescent lights.

“A photo article in a local paper was picked up by the Associated Press, went all over the United States, and then I had an interview with Paul Harvey (the radio news broadcaster who ended each newscast by saying “Good Day!”)

At that time, a large picture of Abraham Lincoln decorated a wall above the crib. Watts said when President Lincoln look-alike Judge George A. Greig walked into the room, Jason would get excited.

“He would look at the picture and look at the judge like he thought the picture had come to life,” she said.

Jason’s access to the clerk’s office would later come under scrutiny when the political consultant was accused of receiving “special access” on election nights, although he was working for the Associated Press reporting voting numbers, Watts said.

Today, Jason is right at home as the deputy clerk.

Watts also took the heat for glitches in election reporting that resulted in recounts unable to be conducted in a tight judicial election and a millage hike in Saugatuck Township that passed by only two votes.

She said due to oversights, some mandates weren’t followed in safeguarding results; however, it led to better training for local clerks, many of which serve part-time in rural townships and are up all night trying to tally results by specific rules.

“Michigan has more safeguards than any other state and more elections than any other state although the standard dates have been cut from four to three,” she said. “And more and more requirements take more time and oversight.”

Watts said the job is not what it was in 1988 when she started with one IBM wordprocessor in the office.

“That was a big change because it made automatic corrections on paper instead of having to tear up the paper with an eraser,” she said. “My goal was to get one wordprocessor at each desk.”

 As part of the apportionment committee, Watts also reapportioned commission districts which started out with 13 and were eventually reduced to seven to evenly distribute population. Circuit Court expanded to include family court, which requires keeping track of court costs, restitution and family support records. Processing concealed gun applications also became a part of the job. 

While some of the new election processes included AutoMark for people with disabilities and AccuVote using optical scans to replace punch cards, it was providing Spanish ballots that was one of her most challenging.

Watts said when she was given short notice to have ballots printed for Spanish-speaking voters in Clyde Township, she made the ballots and translation herself.

She took the ballots home to make the perforations on her sewing machine and before they were printed, she was told her translation read, “Go into the nearest box and make the sign of the cross.”

“From that point on we got professional translations,” Watts said.

With a mandate for court e-filing on the horizon in 2017, the local document management system will need to be integrated with the state’s electronic document management system, a process that makes her happy she’s retiring.

But she continues to worry about the outdated computer system for keeping land records because the county has the only records in existence, while all other records are given to the state which secures a back up.

“Land records are the most vital record in the county—they are the source for taxes and are the only copy of proof that we own what we own,” she said, mentioning there is $750,000 sitting in a capital fund that can only be used for improving access to land records.

But overall, she feels she left the office in the right hands.

“We’re very fortunate to have such dedicated and capable local clerks in Allegan County,” she said. “While some are more seasoned than others, all are willing to put forth effort—with a majority working 80 hour weeks, along with regular jobs elsewhere, to maintain registration rolls.”

Watts said her office also has the best staff, including Patty Fales and Linda Brower whom she’s worked with for the past 20 years and watched their kids and their kids’ kids grow up.

As for Bob Genetski taking her place, Watts said she expects him to improve the office with a new perspective and new ways of resolving problems.

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