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Meet the candidate: Democrat Pavan Parikh for Hamilton County Clerk of Courts

Pavan Parikh
Provided
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Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Pavan Parikh

Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Pavan Parikh took office earlier this year when he was appointed to fill the vacancy left by now-Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval.

Parikh now faces Republican Steve Goodin during this midterm election in a bid to keep the seat. Parikh sat down with WVXU Local Government Reporter Becca Costello to talk about his vision for the office. You can listen to the full conversation by clicking the purple play button above, or read a transcript below.

Find an interview with Parikh's opponent online here.

This interview has been slightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Talk a little bit about your professional and political background, your credentials, and why you think you're the best person for the job.

I'll kind of go in reverse order. I think I'm the best person for the job because I am the current Clerk of Courts. I've been in office for 10 months, and we've been working very hard every single day to make the courthouse work better for normal people. I'm there almost every single day and meeting with my staff, seeking feedback from both our employees and members of the public and lawyers, and the police departments and whoever else has any vested interest in what goes on at the courthouse, and trying to figure out what do they need? How can we help them get it? And how can we do it in such a way that is efficient and helps save them time and reduce their barriers to getting to the courthouse?

As far as my personal and professional background — I'm from Cincinnati, born and raised. I have had, I would argue, a very diverse professional background, even as a practicing attorney. I have worked at the courthouse, I worked for Judge Nadine Allen for a period of time when she was on the Court of Common Pleas. I've owned and operated my own legal practice. I spent four years working at the Statehouse as chief legal counsel for the Ohio Senate Democratic Caucus; spent six-and-a-half years working in-house with the Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati. I've taught part-time at UC at the law school and at Xavier University. And for the last nine years, I've been a judge advocate in the Army Reserve. And so I think when you combine all of that experience together, you then add in all the nonprofit work — I do volunteer work — I think I'm the best person for this job, because I think I have the ears of all the different constituencies in the community that have a vested interest in how the courthouse operates. And I'm there to make sure that we can make it work better for everyone.

You've been in this office for about 10 months. What are some of the actions you've taken during your time in office? And how did you decide what to tackle first in those first few months?

We've worked very hard, honestly, since Day One, on three basic concepts: One, we want to improve transparency; two, we want to increase accessibility; and three, we want to use innovation and foster innovation to get those first two points done.

One of the first things we worked on and pushed out aggressively was a program wherein you can now fill out a civil protection stalking order online — you can fill out the paperwork online. Because what we saw was when people were coming to the courthouse to fill out this paperwork, they were sometimes waiting in line for up to an hour just to fill out the paperwork. And much of the paperwork required the same information multiple times. A way to fix this is to be able to just enter it once and that way it can populate the other forms. We also realize that as legal forms go, the language was very complicated. So we tried to TurboTax this and make it very simple and straightforward for people. So we start asking you questions: "What is your name?" "Who are you seeking the protection against?" Not, "Who's the respondent; who's the petitioner."

Read more: Hamilton Co. made it easier to file civil protection orders. Domestic violence orders could soon follow

And what we found is a significant increase in utilization of the protection order process. We are currently approximately at 1,300 for the year. In all of 2021, we had about a little under 1,500 — 1,483, I think is the number — and so already, with three months left to go in 2022, we almost hit the number that we already did in '21. And not only do we do this process through our website, we also created a QR code. And we worked with law enforcement to ensure that that QR code is getting distributed on business cards throughout the community. So when a police officer comes upon a situation where their solution that they believe is best for the people in that situation is to seek a protection order. They can give them that QR code, they can fill out the paperwork on their cell phone right there while the police officer is standing there. And then when they come in the morning, we take them straight upstairs.

One of the things your opponent has talked about in his campaign is taking the partisan politics out of the office. Do you see it as a partisan office, whether it should or shouldn't be?

It's not a partisan office. It's a partisan election. And I think we all understand that my opponent will have an "R" next to his name on the ballot. I will have a "D" next to my name on the ballot. But operationally it isn't partisan and it shouldn't be partisan.

Now, prior to Aftab's term in office, it was an incredibly partisan office and your methods of advancing in that office were entirely tied to your partisanship and how much work you did on a campaign trail, how much you helped out the incumbent that was in that seat. We do not do any of that we are 100% focused right now on ensuring that our office is run as a meritocracy, that if you do the work, you maintain a customer service attitude, and you look for innovations and improvements in our operations, we're going to reward you, we're going to reward you with more responsibility, we're going to hopefully be able to reward you with better pay and promotion opportunities, more training. Partisanship absolutely does not come into play in anything that happens within our office. And my fear is that if I'm no longer there, there will be a return to that.

One example that your opponent has criticized, just to give you the chance to respond to this, is the decision to remove some eviction records from the clerk's website. So according to candidate Goodin, that reduces transparency and he says that it was kind of a political move. Talk about the goals of that — was that a partisan decision?

It was absolutely not a partisan decision. No conversations around any partisanship were involved in making the decision. It was a decision based upon feedback we got from talking to representatives from nonprofits around Cincinnati, whether it's Women Helping Women or the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, and in-depth conversations with Legal Aid. What we realized was that when you look at what data was available to the public on the website, about evictions, we did not have a whole lot of confidence in how complete that data was. So for example, it would show that an eviction had been filed against somebody and it had been dismissed. It didn't tell you why it was dismissed. It didn't go into the details of did that person actually get evicted? Was the eviction properly filed? What we see sometimes is that evictions are filed against someone who they should not have been. But that record is still out there floating around out there on our website very easily accessible to the public.

What we realized was that some landlords were using this, and not just landlords, but employment agencies or employers were using this easy way to find any blemish on someone's record, to deny them housing, to deny them employment opportunities. When again, we weren't completely confident in the whole story being told. So we looked at what other locations had done, we looked at what Dayton had done, we looked at what Columbus had done. And we modeled our program of taking any old eviction record that is older than three years, wherein it was either dismissed, or that all the fines, fees or costs had been paid. And we removed it from the public website.

Now, if you still want the information, you can always ask us for it. Just like with any public record that is maintained under the Ohio public records law, or the rule of superintendents, you can email us and ask us for that record, you can come to our office and inspect our record and we will happily turn it over to you. But we realized that it was being used as a shortcut to hurt people. And we thought that looking at this three year look back really struck the right balance between protecting those who had had this issue in their background, whether warranted or unwarranted, and allowing transparency and access to court records. It was about balance. And I stand by that decision.

And thinking back to our interview about that topic at the time, I'm remembering that it was also about efficiency, that these were records, as far as I understand, that were routinely dismissed on an individual basis or removed from online on an individual basis. Is that right?

Read more: Inactive eviction records are no longer available online in Hamilton County

That's correct. And so the process had been and quite frankly, still can be, that someone can come to the courthouse and petition a magistrate to remove an old eviction record. And these were routinely being removed, especially in cases where it was a wrongly filed or dismissed eviction. And so what we also sought out to do, in addition to protecting the rights of individuals, was looking at what can make our courthouse run more efficiently. Now, you have significantly less people coming forward and asking for this because it's already being done automatically, which is saving time for magistrates, it's saving courthouse time and effort and money. And we think it's just a better solution for not just the public but also for courthouse operations.

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Phil Armstrong
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Courtesy of Hamilton County
Hamilton County Courthouse

It seems like big themes of your campaign are public access and transparency. Looking ahead, what else could the office do to improve these?

A big thing that we just rolled out is what we call our redaction program, wherein every member of the public can go on our website now and get access to court documents. Historically — if you were not an attorney, or you were not a member of the press — when you got onto our website, and you clicked on any case, you would see on the righthand side a little lockbox, and it would show that, hey, there's a document here, but you can't see it, you have to specifically request any document from our office in order to see it. The problem with that is there's plenty of reasons why these documents should be open to the public. One, they are simply public records and we are offering them up, we think they should be generally made available unless there's a specific reason not to make them available. And so what the redaction program does is it allows any person to go on the website, click on a document, and it will run through our program, where we will look to remove personally identifiable information, information that is deemed to not be public information. So Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, potential victims names in certain cases. And it will pull that information out.

The way the program works right now is it is going through the (auto-redaction) program. But we're also on documents where we are seeing that there may be personal information, doing a second check on it right now, we want to make sure that we're getting this right. The goal is the artificial intelligence will learn as we continue to work through this process. And so in the future, this will be an automatic process, we won't need to do that second check on it. But it's going to take a little bit of time. Right now, I think we're running one to two business days to get through the documents. But the requests are coming in and we are processing them.

There are two very specific types of cases that we have decided to keep under the old system where you have to specifically request them, because we're concerned about victim information getting out. And those are cases where there are sex crimes and cases where there are crimes against children. What we've seen by looking at each of those individual documents is that there is a lot of personal identifiable information in there. And we're trying to be very cognizant not to re-victimize any victims by allowing any information of theirs out into the public sphere that should be protected.

So that's a system already underway now. If the voters decide to keep you in office for the rest of this term, what can they expect to see further down the road?

What we're looking at doing is really again, focusing on our three areas of technology and innovation and accessibility, and transparency. So one of the things that we really want to do that we've started the work on, is creating a text messaging program and a notification program for all cases, so people can get reminded about showing up to court; they can get reminded when there is a new court date. We've heard this from victims of crime that feel like they're not getting the information that they need, that they are entitled to under Marcy's Law, about when is there another hearing in a case to which I'm the victim? Well, we're gonna let victims take that into their own hands. And we're gonna give them the opportunity to sign up to get notification reminders on cases. So that way they know when a new court date has been set; they will know when something new has been filed. But we're also going to try to do this in such a way that people will be able to be reminded that they've got a date coming up. What we've seen is that for very simple things, like someone forgot to pay a traffic ticket, they just forget and a lot of cases and when they forget, now there's a capias warrant issued for their arrest. Now they may get pulled over, they might get arrested, that starts to incur costs on that individual and incurs costs on the courthouse. And from a public safety perspective, it puts costs on the police officers who were out there pulling somebody over, they see that there was a warrant out for them, and they now are putting themselves into danger. So what we want to do is close that gap.

When this was tried as a pilot project in New York City in 2018, they saw an almost 36% reduction in failures to appear. If we can achieve that in Hamilton County, we're going to do something really special that's going to help not only the courthouse, not only law enforcement, but it's really going to help those people who for no other reason, then they just forgot to pay their speeding ticket, it's going to keep them safe, as well.

There's not a lot of involvement from the clerk's office in setting and paying bail. But one of the things that Steve Goodin has advocated for is not accepting bail money from outside sources like The Bail Project. Is that an appropriate decision for the clerk of courts to make? And if so, where would you land on that?

I don't know that it is an appropriate decision for the clerk of courts to make. I think that, look, the purpose of bail is to ensure that someone is showing back up for court. That is the purpose for setting the amount of bail and I think there's a question and there's a debate about amount of bail versus conditions of bail. But if we're talking purely about the amount of bail, the intent is to ensure that somebody shows back up to court. Now, part of that is, yes, it's a carrot and a stick. So if you offer a bail money, there needs to be the option of, hey, if you don't show up to court, then you're out that money, your mom may be out that money, your cousin may be out that money, you may be out that money. But that said, that's not really the clerk's function to determine how big of a stick should there be. Our purpose is to ensure that the bail money is paid, that we have then a record of if we have to claw back that money because someone skips bail than we have the means to do so. But that's it. And I think that if we start pushing too many policies into this environment, we're making potentially legal determinations as to who is warranted and who is appropriately putting up the bail. I think that's a very slippery slope. And I don't know that I want to put our staff in that position of having to make those determinations.

I think that covers all the the main topics, but what else do you want voters to know about your candidacy and why you think they should vote for you?

Pavan Parikh: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to sit down and talk to you today. And, look, we're open, we're open to anyone. So we will sit down with any person anytime, any place to discuss anything. Our goal is to make our office work for the people. We want to make sure that everyone who comes to the courthouse is treated with dignity and respect. I get it. Most people who come to the courthouse, they're not having a good day, you've either been accused of doing something bad or something bad has happened to you. Our goal needs to be to make that process as seamless for you, and to make it as pain-free for you. And that doesn't matter who you are. Because we serve everyone. Our customers are the judges, the police officers, the prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims — everyone that comes through the doors of the courthouse — those are our customers. And we are being paid by the citizens of Hamilton County to ensure that that process goes smoothly.

What I hope people will take away is that we are working hard. We know that there are improvements that need to be made at the courthouse: information needs to be easier to get, we need to be able to use technology to reduce the wait times for getting through the courthouse process. We need to use the resources that we have to ensure that everyone gets access to help, which is why we're looking to expand our help center by adding a social worker and partnering with the University of Cincinnati College of Law and their new legal access clinic to combine forces with our help center to ensure that people who are falling within this gap of being able to get legal services, they get help. That is our goal is to ensure that people are getting help, that we are helping everyone, not just the wealthy, not just the well connected. There should be one justice system, and we're here to help facilitate that.

Becca Costello grew up in Williamsburg and Batavia (in Clermont County) listening to WVXU. Before joining the WVXU newsroom, she worked in public radio & TV journalism in Bloomington, Indiana and Lincoln, Nebraska. Becca has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including from local chapters of the Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists, and contributed to regional and national Murrow Award winners. Becca has a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University and a bachelor's degree from Cincinnati Christian University. Becca's dog Cincy (named for the city they once again call home) is even more anxious than she is.