If you get a ticket from The Dalles police, the era of having a little extra wiggle room to deal with it is over.
For decades, the former clerk for The Dalles Municipal Court had a more relaxed method of processing traffic tickets, which kept the occasional tardy payer from facing a license suspension.
She had a file on her desk where she would put tickets if the person didn’t pay or show up for court. By law, the tickets should’ve promptly been sent to the DMV for license suspension.
But as payments dribbled in — she’d give them a week or two past their court date, she said — she would process them.
With tighter controls now in place, former clerk Dorene Brown suspects “a lot” of people are driving with suspended licenses and don’t even know it.
Brown was fired Jan. 23 after 25 years as clerk. She said she did everything her new supervisor told her to do, including abandoning her old practice and turning people over to the DMV as soon as they didn’t show for court. She said she had too much work and not enough time, and that all her explanations for the problems found by auditors and officials fell on deaf ears.
A city document Brown provided the Chronicle showed the city’s human resources director determined last October that she lied about the handling of a traffic ticket and he placed her on probation. She had two written reprimands prior to that.
Brown authorized city officials to talk to the Chronicle about her dismissal, but they said they don’t do that, even if given permission.
An October memo from the city’s auditor, Merina & Co. LLP, which Brown also provided to the paper, said Brown was behind on turning over to collections people who hadn’t made payments per their payment plan for three months.
“I probably got way behind, we’re talking like a year,” Brown said. “It takes a lot of work to get them in collections.”
She said, “I would not put them in collections in three months.” She reasoned, “If they can’t pay it here, they’re not going to pay collections. So that was my fault for getting behind on that, which I was trying to take care of.”
A switch to a new computer system slowed the work even more, as it required going through thousands of records one by one, she said.
Brown said the new software program for the court, which went live last April, only included records back to 2012, and $208,000 worth of pre-2012 collectables – some of which people were paying on, Brown said – were essentially written off. Any payments made on those old accounts go into a “miscellaneous” fund, she was told.
Brown said that in all her years as court clerk she never had a bad employment review, until she got a new supervisor last spring.
She said she would’ve fought her termination — “everybody” encouraged her to, she said — but two days before she was fired, her husband had been diagnosed with the same kind of cancer that killed his brother the year before. The city offered to pay for three months of health insurance, and she said she felt she had no choice but to take the offer. She said she didn’t even thoroughly read the separation agreement before she signed it. Her union representative told her that the city had “covered its bases” in the termination.
She’s been looking for work since. She’s 66 and had planned to work until 70. She’d worked in the city’s finance department before becoming court clerk, and she was in her 30th year with the city. She was vested in her pension plan and will be able to collect it.
She said she’s now haggling with the city over her health insurance, with the city saying it included only medical, not dental.
The probation letter concerned a specific ticket that an auditor had asked about. According to the letter, Brown told the auditor she didn’t have it. Video and computer program evidence showed that, later that day, the ticket was entered in the system and back-dated for the day before.
The letter noted that Brown said the police officer “had not turned it in, which they sometimes do.” The letter noted that the city several months earlier had changed its process of retrieving tickets and now the city attorney went to the police department every day to get them. The finance director got a copy of all tickets and the tickets were taken to the court clerk for processing.
The Dalles Human Resources Director Daniel Hunter then wrote, “It is my finding that Dorene was dishonest and lied to the auditor about when tickets had been entered, and what tickets she was in possession of.”
Brown said she found the ticket after the auditor left. “I did find it, and I put it in the system. So he said I was being deceitful or dishonest.” Hunter noted Brown didn’t tell the auditor she found the ticket.
Brown said, “One thing after another happened, but it wasn’t deceitful; it wasn’t dishonest.”
Speaking of her practice of holding onto unpaid tickets after they should’ve been turned over to DMV, she said, “some people do forget. I gave them time. I didn’t dispose of that ticket until I knew, ‘I’ve given you enough time and no, I don’t feel sorry for you.’ That was the way I looked at it.”
Her probation document noted that auditors had found “numerous weaknesses in processes” that were the result of procedures “severely lacking internal control.”
Problems had been noted in past audits, the probation document said, but they had “gone uncorrected” by the previous finance director and Brown’s previous supervisor, the city attorney.
City Manager Julie Krueger said the court clerk years ago used to be under the supervision of the finance director. Krueger said a prior audit “found deficiencies and I determined it would be more appropriate to move the position under the supervision of the finance department.”
City Attorney Gene Parker had no comment.
The probation letter said Brown couldn’t “be held accountable to internal controls that were not in place at the time of this audit.”
The letter also noted procedures were needed to address “a practice that clearly has operated without a standard for time to enter, follow up and report.”
Brown said she’d had the same individual auditor in the past, and they’d never had issues with her before. Now, she said she was told she “broke the audit,” and that the city had a “bad audit because of the courtroom.”
The auditor’s memo noted some tickets were actually in the failure to appear in court category but were showing as “pending court” in the computer system. Since no disposition was entered, that meant the owed traffic fines were receivables that were not reflected in city books.
Brown said of those tickets, “You’re maybe talking $8,000. I’m just guessing. In the scope of things that can’t really ruin an audit.”
The memo found six areas of weak controls or concerns. It noted that Brown hadn’t put anyone in collections for six months. Brown said the process was slow anyway and made slower by the new software system.
It said she was using the old payment plan and not the new payment contract. Brown said she was working in both systems, of necessity.
A sampling of tickets found some were not being entered in the system in a timely manner, including tickets written 10 weeks prior.
“I proved two of them, I never even got them, the police department had them. I proved it but they didn’t believe that,” Brown said.
Another five tickets were marked failure to appear but were still showing as pending court, including some from the previous fiscal year, which ended June 30.
Finance Director Angie Wilson, who started with the city in 2017, became Brown’s supervisor last spring.
Brown said her troubles began when she “really pushed” to not have to move downstairs into the finance department. She didn’t want to be constantly going back upstairs to where the courtroom is.
“That started probably World War III,” Brown said.
Shortly afterwards, she got the new computer system, which had the predictable glitches, and she only had two and a half days of training on it. She said she was teaching herself how to use it and it didn’t perform well.
Brown said, “The courtroom is very busy, it’s one person and it takes a lot to keep up and it took overtime to keep up and when I got no overtime and a new system, yeah, I got behind. But I was doing it. I mean, I felt I was doing a great job, just wasn’t getting done quickly.”
Other changes came also. The collection of payment for tickets was moved downstairs to the finance department, a change long sought by auditors as a way to mitigate the risk of a single employee committing fraudulent acts, the auditor’s memo stated.
One of the six weaknesses noted by the auditor was that Brown had taken a payment after being told not to. Brown said she just hadn’t run the check downstairs because it was lunchtime.
She also took some credit card payments. She told her supervisor that since another person upstairs had been allowed to, she reasoned she could, too.
Also ended was a longstanding practice allowing Brown to reduce tickets on her own, by an amount set in state law. Now, all such requests go before the judge.
As of December, people must to go to a judge with proof of insurance before getting the ticket dismissed or reduced, Brown said. She had previously been able to do that herself. She was also no longer able to serve as judge pro tem.
At one point, she asked her supervisor in what she said was a joking way, “Do you think I’m tossing tickets away?
“She just looked at me and said, ‘You’re being condescending.’ And I just looked at her and I was trying to think, ‘What does that word mean?’ I wasn’t sure at the time.”
Brown felt she was being “badgered.” In the beginning, she emailed her union rep daily, and was told to just “try to get along” with her supervisor. She told her rep, “I can’t believe you guys won’t grieve these things.”
The union rep, David Mills, declined to comment.
Brown said she had a heavy criminal docket that took up the majority of her day, on top of processing tickets.
She said she would comply with new orders, but ask questions about them also. “They took it as, ‘You’re always arguing with your supervisor.’”