Restoring order-- Court administrator finds place in a familiar setting

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Lynette Ward recalls a much simpler time while growing up in Norfolk, Va. Large fields for play were right across the street from her home, and acres of crops surrounded her childhood setting.

For fun, she and her playmates would leap over drainage ditches. Ironically, Ward's life has come full circle, and she's still hurdling those obstacles. Except now she's doing it as court administrator at Pontiac's 50th District Court during a state take-over of the financially-strapped city.

But just as she grew familiar to the risks and rewards leaping over those ditches in Norfolk, taking the reins of a court in a city deemed bankrupt by the state is old hat to her. She faced those same barriers and problems when she was the 68th District Court Administrator in Flint and the city was under emergency management by the state.

"I've been there before," Ward said during a recent interview. "And that's a major plus. Pontiac is in a situation that's not really unique to me."

To understand her positive outlook in the face of such a tremendous challenge requires only knowing how well Ward has prepared herself in the past for getting over yet another obstacle others would shy away from, mutter 'Thank you very much, but no thanks' and walk--no run--away from.

Ward, 53, grew up in Norfolk, where life was "very simple, and great," she said. She graduated from Great Bridge High School in 1974 and entered Norfolk State University, graduating with honors in 1978 with a major in business, accounting and management. Because of her high grades, Ward was recruited by General Motors, moved to Flint and worked at a Chevrolet plant in the accounting department.

"It was a big move," Ward said of leaving her roots, family and friends.

But the pain of leaving was lessened because a distant relative from Norfolk also had been hired by GM and had family in Flint, and Ward moved in with her. While working for GM, Ward earned a master's degree in management from Central Michigan University, again graduating with honors, in 1986. Ward was married in 1981 to a man she met through a friend at a social gathering. Although the union did not last, the couple had two daughters and a son.

But after graduating from CMU, Ward soon grew restless, and thought, "What do I do next?" Ward said she always enjoyed reading books about court, and watching television programs about the law, like "Perry Mason," and decided to attend law school. She attended Cooley Law School at night and on weekends, and graduated in 1991. Ward and her husband got together again briefly before divorcing, and she relied on her ex-husband, other relatives and friends to help her raise the kids while attending school and working full-time.

"I had a real good support system," she said.

While attending law school was somewhat of a whim, a way to continue going to school and a way to pad her résumé, Ward said one class she took there "made me believe I really wanted to practice law."

The class, a district court trial workshop, had students participating in mock trials, and Ward knew this was something she wanted to do. After graduating, she went back to GM, working in the Legal Services Department. As a staff attorney from 1992-94, Ward provided legal services to GM workers, surviving spouses and retirees, doing anything and everything short of representing those people in criminal matters.

Ward worked on wills, trusts, divorces and paternity matters. She made court appearances, negotiated settlement agreements, and went to nursing homes, hospitals and elsewhere to represent disabled and elderly clients.

And working for GM Legal Services "was a very good place for an attorney to start out," she said. "You learned how to do it the right way in the legal environment."

But in 1994, Ward left and took a position in the Genesee County Prosecutor's Office.

"I wanted more courtroom experience," she said of the switch. "At GM, I didn't get into court as much as I wanted to."

Ward was assigned to the district court warrant division initially, and learned the ropes from the late Division Chief Jim Yuille. There, Ward wrote warrants, and took cases from the beginning through the district court scenario.

"I loved it," she said of working in the lower court setting. "You get a complete picture of the case, just short of trial. And Jim Yuille was a great mentor. He could be gruff, but you eventually knew he trusted you when you'd see that twinkle in his eye and his laugh. I learned the nuts and bolts of criminal law from him and my time in district court."

Later, Ward moved to handling Genesee County Circuit Court matters for the prosecutor's office. She handled many criminal matters, including being the sole prosecutor for the auto theft unit and conducted trials. While sitting second chair to the chief assistant prosecutor during a trial about the gruesome murder of a Flint mother, Ward became somewhat familiar with the deceased woman's daughter.

Years later, the girl saw Ward at a store, walked over to her and said, "I want to thank you. You helped put away the guy who killed my mother."

The trial revolved around DNA evidence, which was in its infancy then. Ward said she still gets a lump in her throat when thinking about that girl, her mother and the trial.

"It made me appreciate the work I was doing," she said.

But Ward still loved her time in district court.

"It was always very busy," she said. "There was never a dull moment, and that's where I learned that truth is much stranger than fiction."

Armed with a boatload of knowledge, legal skills and business education, Ward decided to leave the prosecutor's office in 1999 and moved into private practice. But it didn't last too long.

"An opportunity arose where I could use all that, and stay in a court setting," she said.

That opportunity came in the form of 68th District Court administrator after the current administrator, Jim Hughes, left to take a job with the State Court Administrators Office.

The job description consisted of overseeing the city of Flint District Court, serving its six judges, and preparing budgets, providing fiscal control, personnel management, court policies, procedures and reports.Ward also was there during a transition period, when state reporting requirements were being altered.

"There was a lot of change," she said.

But there was also something else going on. The city of Flint was deemed financially unable to handle its own affairs by the state, and an emergency manager was put in place. Ward was forced to handle the court operations with less money because of the fiscal emergency, which lasted for several years in the early 2000s. She implemented several maneuvers that accomplished all that by streamlining functions and cutting discretionary spending. Ward herself took a pay cut, and also served as the court's magistrate and chief probation officer.

"We managed to hold the court intact," Ward said. "It was very stressful, but we were able to pull everybody together.

But after eight years there, Ward again felt the time to leave was right. Her children were grown, and "I thought it was the right time to hang out a shingle" and return to private practice. Now, Ward believed all her previous education and training--with business management, as a prosecutor, and court administrator--was coming together.

"I felt very competent," she said, and specialized in criminal law. But after several years in a successful practice, a few things began eating at her. For one, the economy and recent recession made it difficult for many attorneys. And, being a lone wolf was just not Ward's forte.

"You spend so many hours alone, and you lose a lot of the interaction with people," she said. "There's a sense of isolation in private practice."

Once again, fate intervened. Ward learned of an opening as administrator of the Oakland County 50th District Court by staying in touch with people and keeping tabs with legal openings through the Internet. According to published reports, the former court administrator left amid a barrage of ethical issues. Ward applied for the job, and was hired in April 2009. Once again, she was in charge of a court in a city in the midst of a state takeover resulting from financial mismanagement.

"It was bittersweet leaving Flint because of all the friends, and clients," Ward said. "But Pontiac had issues that needed immediate attention," including an imminent state take-over.

The Pontiac court also had changes in court administrators and office managers.

"That lack of continuity and leadership created a lot of issues," she said.

After 10 months on the job, Ward said things are now going pretty good.

"We have a very talented and dedicated workforce here. Some things were easy to fix, which carried a larger impact."

Ward said she has also had "tremendous support" from the judges there.

"But it remains so challenging. There's never a dull moment.

"I just want this court to be known as a court with high goals, and achieve things above the standards set by the state. We want to change the image."

For now, Ward intends to stay put.

"I want to stay here and help lead this court," she said.

Ward has even recruited her former office manager from Flint, Lisa King, to aid in the transition and help move the 50th District Court forward.

"It's wonderful to have her here," Ward said. King's position is listed as a fill-in for now because of the financial emergency. She's been with the (Flint) court for more than 25 years, so she's seen it all and brings a lot of knowledge."

Ward's office has the lived-in look of someone who is definitely in for the long run. Ward's desk is covered with papers and court documents, but she appears comfortable. On the day a reporter visited for an interview, Ward was listening to a Santana CD. She lists photography and music as her outlets.

Ward describes herself as an "upbeat, optimistic person." She said her days as a prosecutor were filled with love, while her days as Flint's court administrator taught her to "make the necessary sacrifices to achieve those goals."

"But no matter where you are, there's always something new to learn."

And she seems to be making a positive impact, according to Chief Judge Cynthia Thomas Walker. Walker, who has been on the bench since 2003, was formerly the 50th District Court administrator, before the recent turmoil.

She said Ward has been "outstanding, professional, energetic and resourceful" in bringing the court along.

"She brings a wealth of experience, and we've had some challenges here in the past," Walker said. "Lynette's experience in court management and background in finances has really been an asset to us in stabilizing the court operations."

And Thomas said coming from one court under financial emergency management in Flint to the same scenario in Pontiac is a common thread.

"Being a court administrator is not an easy job, from my own experience, so having her here has been just delightful."

Ward said being in Pontiac has been a smooth transition. "I was welcomed here with open arms and given a fair chance to move this court in a positive direction," she said. "I look forward to coming to work every day.

Published: Mon, Feb 8, 2010