Probate candidates view backgrounds as strengths

Published 3:00 am Saturday, April 28, 2018

The office of probate judge has many duties, but the position could be separated into two distinct roles: judicial and administrative.

Both Republican candidates seeking the position in this year’s race, Michael Bunn and Alton Starling, view their backgrounds as strengths toward performing those duties.

Michael Bunn, local attorney, said it is important for someone who has experience practicing law and specifically in the probate court to be elected to the position to be effective in the judicial role from day one.

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“The probate court does a lot of different things,” Bunn said. “It deals with estates, wills, adoptions, involuntary commitments, guardianships, conservatorships … Those are people that aren’t coming to our court on their best days. For a family member and the person dealing with severe mental illness such that someone felt the need to ask the court to restrict their liberties, that’s a big deal. They need help right now … That’s one obvious place I think I can make a difference.”

Bunn said he already deals with these same things on a day-to-day basis as a local attorney. Bunn has practiced in the probate court for five years and said he has handled more than 100 cases in the court including the wide range the court oversees.

He is an alumnus of Troy University and Jones School of Law at Faulkner University and also worked in the private sector handling truck tags prior to joining the bar.

Alton Starling, said the judicial side of the job is a matter of following state rules and regulations that doesn’t necessitate a law background.

“It’s just going through the regulations,” Starling said. “It’s following the regulations checklist and following those procedures … In reviewing the duties of that job, I don’t see anything in there where you’re required to have a law degree.”

Starling said his 21 years as clerk with the City of Troy prepare him specifically for the administrative role of the office, which he said is the primary function of the office.

“If you look at the responsibilities of the probate office, it’s performing what I call administerial functions: following rules and regulations,” Starling said. “I strictly stick to the guidelines, and I’m going to follow rules to the letter. It’s what I learned in the military and what I’ve been doing for the last 21 years.”

Starling obtained an accounting degree from Troy University and served in the Air Force for eight years prior to joining the City of Troy as the city clerk, where he administers licenses, keeps records, manages the city’s finances and runs elections – all duties of the probate office.

Bunn said the administrative role of the office can be learned on the job due to the staff already in place while the judicial aspect of the role requires a probate judge to have an understanding of the court from the start.

“The current probate court has excellent employees that do this on a full-time basis,” Bunn said. “Tags will continue to happen the day after the election regardless, records will continue to be recorded.”

Bunn said that, if elected, he would look at bringing satellite offices to Banks and Goshen that would mirror the office open once a month in Brundidge.

“Sitting down with farmers and truckers, that is something we need to offer in Banks and Goshen as well,” Bunn said. “With the people that we have in place that already understand how to run a satellite office, I think that’s something we can roll out in those communities. Farmers and truckers, if they’re not out working, they’re not making money.”

He also spoke toward building the online presence of the office so people have options on how they want to access records and interact with the office.

Starling said he has no specific plans for immediately expanding the probate office, saying he would instead need to consult with the existing staff and evaluate the processes in place.

“I think it’s important, to be fair to the staff, to go in there and say ‘Let’s evaluate what we’re doing and how we’re doing that,’” Starling said. “I’m going to do this just like what I did with the city; I’m going to walk in, evaluate the processes, see what they’re doing and why they’re doing it that way and then see how we could be doing it differently.”

Starling said one change he wants to evaluate with the staff is sending a notice out for business licenses so the probate office may be able to generate more revenue.

The two Republican candidates will square off in the primary on Tuesday, June 5, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Voter ID will be required at the polls. For more information about polling places or registration, contact the Board of Registrars at 334-566-1757.