Murtaugh’s Move Works for DC Court 11/21/18 10:11:58 AM
Ron Murtaugh, judicial administrator for Douglas County Court, shows off a temporary structure to be used by cashiers and clerks during Douglas County Courthouse renovations on Oct. 18, 2018. (Photo by Scott Stewart)
Murtaugh’s Move Works for DC Court
By Andy Roberts
The Daily Record
It’s just a 15-minute drive from the Ralston Police Station to the Douglas County Hall of Justice, but Ron Murtaugh made it look even easier than usual.
Murtaugh, the Lincoln-born former police chief of Ralston, has smoothly transitioned from law enforcement
to the legal community.
It’s been close to two years since the 30-year law enforcement veteran, who spent a quarter century in our nation’s military, became judicial administrator of Douglas County Court.
Murtaugh, who has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s in public administration, said the similarities between law enforcement and the courts made the move a good fit. After all, he worked with several of the judges while wearing a badge.
“In addition, I was aware of the state’s pursuit of technology in the courts,” he said. “Recognizing the huge importance of technology and how it can increase efficiency and access to the courts, this was an extremely
intriguing part of this position that elevated my interest.”
While police officers had cameras and computers in their cars, Murtaugh knew technology went further. Ralston police had initiated a new records management system that allowed them to upload reporting data to various entities. The department also added digital recording equipment to its interview rooms.
“Recognizing and being part of the technological growth in law enforcement enabled me to bring my skills to the courts and grow similar type goals in a new environment,” he said.
Murtaugh’s management style also made the administrator’s job appealing and a good fit.
“The court is made up of some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable staff I have ever had the privilege
of working with,” Murtaugh offered. “With a great balance of guidance and oversight, the managers
and supervisors now have ownService ership and a say in how our mission and vision is accomplished.”
He doesn’t micromanage, Murtaugh said, but he does guide, support and advocate for the tools and resources the staff needs to do their jobs. Then, he tries to step back so they can shine.
“I try and stay out of their way, so they can do great things,” Murtaugh said. “When I began, I let them know that at the end of the day, I can and will make the hard decisions.”
But when it comes to operations, he said he will try to avoid making a decision without soliciting and carefully considering the staff input. That includes new employees (he has 80 under his watch) and some with 20-plus years in the court.
“Years in an organization allows for different perspectives,” he said. “Each perspective comes with a unique view. None are better or worse.
“Blended together, we get the best result and decision.”
While a good fit, the new job wasn’t something Murtaugh spent decades pursuing. But after 30 years in law enforcement, he decided to explore his options for many reasons. For years he had focused on a succession plan for the Ralston Police Department, which was not a focus for others in the department.
Still, he went about with an emphasis on mentoring and growing the internal staff. He said it improves morale when people in an organization know they have the skills to compete for advancement.
“Once I was confident that people had their skills honed, I kept abreast of other opportunities,” he said. “This opportunity (Judicial Administrator) presented itself and I was fortunate enough to be selected.”
His previous eight years of planning came into play and the deputy chief took Murtaugh’s old job, a sergeant became deputy chief and an officer was promoted to sergeant.
“This is how I measure my success,” he said. “Opportunities aren’t planned, they present themselves and a person needs to be prepared to recognize them and pursue them.”
He won’t say he misses law enforcement but feels fortunate to have met his goals and set up others for success. Now he’s immersed in his new work family.
Murtaugh believes his law enforcement experience helps in his current job. After all, police encounter
almost everyone in society, often at some of the worst times in their life, and after having made some of life’s worst decisions. They may need help and direction.
“In the court, this is no different,” he said. “Some of the faces change, but the basic mission is the same.”
In county court most of the faces are there for misdemeanors and traffic cases. And there are a lot of faces as the county court docket sees more than 50,000 files a year. Then there is the probate division that handles guardianships/conservatorship cases, estate, wills, adoptions and other matters. There also is a civil division where small claims cases, garnishments and collection actions take place.
“The Douglas County Court, the state’s largest at that level, handles over 90,000 cases a year,” Murtaugh said. “Some are handled over a couple of months, while cases in our Probate Division can go on for many years.”
Not surprisingly, Murtaugh would like to use technology to improve the court’s performance. He is aware some big dollars may be attached to those efforts.
“There isn’t a single computer system, or software, that can have enhancements programmed without a significant price tag tied to it,” Murtaugh said. “Take the cost, as only one part of it, and add the ability to balance the needs of the county courts throughout the state, you quickly have a very complex situation.”
Given the state’s financial situation and current resources available to the courts, he feels the operation is running extremely well. With Douglas County having the state’s largest court at the county level, the division managers have organized work well to improve efficiency.
Managing employee turnover is one of Murtaugh’s biggest challenges.
As court employees are state employees, there are financial limitations making pay less competitive than ideally it might be. There also is the matter of parking: free for most state court employees in Nebraska but that’s not an option in Douglas County where employees pay as much as $60 per month to park their cars.
Murtaugh said he is working with the state’s court administrator on parking alternatives. They are exploring options while balancing that concern against other financial challenges faced by the courts.
One thing Murtaugh wants the public to know about his staff is they care. They really care.
Without offering legal advice, the staff is empathetic in helping people get the information they need no matter if it’s how to address a driver’s license suspension or how to establish legal guardianship for children who’ve lost their parents in a car accident.
“We know navigating the courts is a daunting task,” he said. “We know when we hand someone a stack of forms it can be overwhelming.”
“We do care and we do want to help.”