As of May 12, people will be asking Audrey Pheffer if she can get them out of jury duty— and she’s prepared to answer them. “I want to know why,” says the soon to be former Assemblywoman. “I mean, is it such a terrible experience? I ‘ve always wondered why people react so badly to being asked to serve on a jury.” And when she steps into her new office in less than a week, to begin her new position as the Queens County Clerk, Pheffer intends to take her responsibility as the Commissioner of Jurors very seriously.
Pheffer was first named as a consideration to fill the vacancy at the clerk’s office after Gloria D’Amico passed away in December. Official confirmation assigning the position was handed down by a judge late last week.
Making sure that the juror rolls are full enough to handle the trial schedule in both the civil and criminal terms of the Queens Supreme is but one of the many responsibilities Pheffer will tackle as the clerk. Her approach to changing people’s attitude of avoidance is to educate potential jurors on the importance of their role in carrying out justice and democracy. “It’s important that we understand that it’s the jury system that makes this country work. It facilitates justice.” In an attempt to make the experience a pleasant one, Pheffer says that the court has modernized jury rooms and waiting areas so people are more comfortable during their stay.
While assuming the new position represents a challenge to Pheffer, she admits that amidst the excitement, it is certainly a bittersweet moment to step away from something that has been her life for the past 24 years.
“I have made such wonderful friends in Albany. Having a close relationship with the people that make government work is something I will surely miss,” explains Pheffer. But it’s not the lawmakers Pheffer says she will miss the most, but, her constituency. What Pheffer says she will most miss is making a difference in people’s lives on a daily basis.
The flip side of the coin has Pheffer secretly rejoicing over the fact that the commute to Albany is finally over after all these years and now she can leave from her new office and make it in plenty of time to see a grandson’s basketball game or an after school play.
Looking back on an illustrious career that spans more than two decades at the state Capitol, Pheffer says it was her work on the Consumer Affairs Committee to protect personal identity and information that she regards as some of her greatest accomplishments as a legislator. On a community level, she regards helping individuals within her district on a daily basis as the greatest accomplishment any elected official could ever have. “There’s something to be said about hearing a person say thank you. You know you helped them, and you know they appreciate it.”
Pheffer recently resigned as Democratic District Leader because her new position does not allow her to remain in that post. She will be permitted to attend political events as long as she displays no partiality to one political party over another in her function as the County Clerk.
Additional responsibilities at the clerk’s office include complete responsibility for all court records, filings and decisions in the civil part of Queens Supreme Court. She will also be responsible for notary and passport services as well as liens and other certified documents filed on the county level.
Perhaps the most ironic phase of Pheffer’s career change is that she will have to go from passing the budget to living with it. “The most difficult thing I am faced with now is the fact that as a result of the budget I passed, I have to leave behind many loyal staffers that have been with me for years.” And as much as Pheffer says she would like to have taken staff along with her, the hiring freeze on the state level preempts her wishes. “It’s so strange,” she reflects, “I dished out the budgetary woes of the state, and now I have to eat them.”
In thinking about what lies ahead, she says no matter who her replacement is at the Assembly level, she is sure that a smart electorate will vote in someone who is very capable of doing a great job. “Whoever it is, should know,” she warns, “that I plan on being a very vocal constituent.”
One concern moving forward is not to lose touch with the people. “The reason I loved being an elected official you have to deal with people. I want people to know what the true function of the clerk’s position is and why it’s so important to their daily lives.” And so she says she’ll bring her education and awareness theory to her new job. “We always have to make people aware.” To that end Pheffer has been bringing students to tour Albany and the Capitol for years so they could get a first-hand look at what makes government tick.
At the end of the day, a political career that began in 1980 as Chief of Staff for then State Senator Jeremy Weinstein and led to a dozen terms in the state Assembly has taken a new turn that represents new opportunities and new challenges. Plans to work hard and also enjoy family are at the top of Pheffer’s to-do list. She and life partner Glenn Riddell share a blended family with their five children and seven grandchildren.
And so, after being thrust into public/political life as early as 1973, when she first joined the Harry S. Truman Democratic Club, Audrey Pheffer embarks on yet another public career path. We wish her well.
by Pat Adams