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For the third time since being elected in 2006, El Paso County Clerk Delia Briones is being challenged by a former employee.
Briones, who is seeking a fifth term in the March 1 Democratic primary election, faces Ruben Sandoval, a former court clerk and first-time candidate.
Briones, 66, was unopposed in 2018 after a former employee was disqualified from running. She was challenged by her former deputy in 2014. Briones said she doesn’t see an end to her almost two decades in office.
“It takes the first four years to get your footing,” she said. “But then you have to get good at it. So as time progresses, you sharpen your skills.”
Sandoval, 37, who worked for Briones from 2015 through 2019, said he’s running to change what he calls a “toxic work culture” in the county clerk’s office that he says impacts the public. He did not provide specifics.
After 16 years as the county clerk, Briones said it is easy for employees to “point the finger at me and maybe feel they can do better.”
No Republicans are running in the primary for the four-year position, which pays $117,976 annually.
Sandoval said though he respects the work Briones has done for the clerk’s office, it’s time for change.
“Change is needed and change is coming because of what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard, what has been done. It’s time,” he said.
The county ‘archivist’
Briones described the county clerk as the “archivist of the county.” The office issues and maintains birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, wills and deeds. It also maintains case files for the El Paso County Probate Courts and is the records custodian for El Paso County Commissioners Court.
“At one point or another, you will be in my office. You have a baby, birth certificate. You get married, marriage license,” Briones said. “Everything that you go through in life, you will be in my office.”
Briones said she oversees 85 employees.
During her current term, Briones said her top accomplishment was digitizing deeds, probate and criminal case files — some of which date back to 1874. She finished that process within a year.
Previously, attorneys and the general public had to physically come into her office to access such records. Now they are viewable online and can be printed from home.
If re-elected, Briones said her next focus would be digitizing marriage licenses.
“I wish to run as long as God gives me strength and health. It keeps your mind active, it keeps you young,” she said.
Before her career at the clerk’s office, Briones was a court administrator for former state District Court Judge Sam Paxson and former Probate Court Judge Max Higgs.
‘Change is needed’
Sandoval said he left the county clerk’s office voluntarily in 2019 to take a job as a guardianship specialist for El Paso County Probate Court No. 1. In this role, he said he helps resolve estate settlements and serves as a liaison between legal guardians, court staff and the judge.
Prior to working for the county, Sandoval was a human resource officer for Vista Markets for seven years.
He said he is campaigning on two main points: to improve the internal work culture and make services accessible to everyone in the community.
“Some of the things that are said between individuals (in the clerk’s office) … there can be instances where instead of being a professional setting, it becomes a personal one,” he said of his experience there. “I wouldn’t want anybody that would work with me to feel like I don’t want to be there.”
Sandoval said he could not provide further details about these allegations because he feared retaliation against current employees.
While he recognizes Briones’ efforts to move services online, Sandoval said he wants to find a balance between technology and paper documentation.
Sandoval said one of his worries about increased technology in the clerk’s office is that not all of the public may know how to use it. Older generations may not be as familiar with technology as younger people, he said, and those that are indigent may not have a way to get online. Internet outages could be a potential challenge, he added.
“You need to be able to establish something where it’s like, ‘Okay, you can’t go on this website, let me set up some sort of station and get you the answers’,” he said. If elected, he would create an outreach coordinator position to educate community members about the office’s availability and services.
Briones noted that the clerk’s office remains open to anyone who wants access to physical records and copies. Staff can provide assistance via phone as well.
Self-funded vs. funded
Sandoval said he is self-funding his campaign. He did not report any contributions on his Jan. 18 and 31 campaign finance reports.
“I’m covering everything but I think it’s worth the investment,” he said. “I’m not doing this for me.”
According to her Jan. 18 financial report, Briones received $17,560 in contributions. Her largest donor, local attorney Darron Powell, gave $3,000. She also received $1,000 from businessman Stanley Jobe.
John Martin, president of Lone Star Title, a local insurance and settlement company, will hold a fundraising event for her this month. The invited guests include a majority of Republicans, Briones said. Martin has also contributed $1,000 to her campaign.
Briones has not yet filed the most recent report due Jan. 31.
Sandoval said he’s undeterred by the amount his opponent has raised.
“I want to assure myself, those around me, and this county that just because you’re the turtle doesn’t mean you don’t win the race,” Sandoval said.
Early voting for the March 1 primary begins Feb. 14.