An exclusive interview with Audrey Pheffer – Queens County Clerk
As I walked up the stairs to the Queens County Courthouse in Jamaica on a Friday afternoon in the summer, I did not know precisely what to expect as I had a scheduled interview with Queens County Clerk, Audrey Pheffer. But after meeting this most affable official for the very first time, I can say with certitude that it was surely an upbeat culmination to an otherwise arduous week for a journalist.
Ms. Pheffer, just returning from a previous appointment in an otherwise busy day, greeted us with a palpable warmth and plenty of lively banter.
At 73, Ms. Pheffer radiates a remarkable youthful exuberance when she speaks about her personal life, her role as Queens County Clerk and her luminous career in public service.
Having been appointed as Queens County Clerk in 2011, Ms. Pheffer has spent the last few years working assiduously to significantly expand juror pools, bringing the electronic filing system up to date and easing the bureaucratic burdens of the residents in the County of Queens.
Arriving at this station in her life was no easy assignment, but Ms. Pheffer’s achievement is clearly predicated on her own merits and sheer determination.
Not one to just sit around and watch the world go by around her, Ms. Pheffer recalls her youth a time of vibrant and active participation. “In high school, I was a majorette and was president of my sorority, so getting involved with people, and working to make things better came as second nature to me,” she said with a reflective tone in her voice.
As a young mother of two living in Far Rockaway in the early 1970s, Ms. Pheffer began working the field of special education. Asked why she decided to pursue this avenue of providing assistance to those less fortunate, Ms. Pheffer waxed philosophical. “Sometimes in life, a path is there for you and you don’t know why you are really on it, but you also know it’s the place you want to be.”
Becoming aware of families with special needs kids inspired Ms. Pheffer to take a more active role in her community. “My kids were young at the time; and my husband could look after them in the evenings, so I took this opportunity to really roll up my sleeves and get involved.”
In those days, she recalls, children afflicted with a multiple of neurological disorders were labeled “retarded” before the debate ensued that attempted to correct negative stereotypes of the disabled.
“I joined the local chapter of the Association for the Help of Retarded Children; and spent my time raising funds for them,” she recalled.
A hint of a career in public service became evident to Ms. Pheffer when she worked for the Board of Education sponsored Occupational Training Center that had just opened in her neighborhood. As she and other colleagues trekked to City Hall to lobby for improved services for special needs children including adequate bussing to their schools, it was there that her talents were noticed.
“Political insiders in my community told me that I’d be in a position to accomplish much more if I were to take a role in local politics,” remembered Ms. Pheffer. “That was the watershed moment in the road leading me to being elected to the New York State Assembly,” she adds.
Soon thereafter Ms. Pheffer joined the Harry S. Truman Democratic Club in Rockaway and worked with influential people in both local and state politics.
“A judge named Herb Posner told me there was a position open for a state committee woman, and suggested that I take it,” she recalls.
Adding to her increasingly hectic schedule of juggling the responsibilities of motherhood and her nascent public service career, Ms. Pheffer made the decision to pursue her undergraduate degree.
After 10 years of attending evening courses at Queens College, in 1982, Ms. Pheffer graduated cum laude with a Bachelors of Arts degree. With an ebullient smile that radiated pride and a sense of accomplishment, Ms. Pheffer said that “those years were absolutely wonderful.”
Breaking open new ground in terms of protecting the inalienable rights of all New Yorkers, Ms. Pheffer then assumed the position of acting director of the newly established City Commission on Human Rights.
“I worked there for three years and while I felt that we were making tremendous progress, it was then that I met former State Senator Jeremy Weinstein. He told me that I could really open doors to enacting legislation that would make a powerful difference in the lives of the people I was serving if I worked for a senator, so I began working for him,” she recalls.
Never forgetting her heartfelt commitment to improving the lives of disabled children, in 1986, Ms. Pheffer worked as both public advocate and ombudsman for then City Council President Andrew Stein. “I was his Queens liaison and Mr. Stein gained a growing awareness of community issues and of the lack of services for special needs children,” she said.
Soon thereafter, Ms. Pheffer learned that Gerdi Lipschutz, then serving as New York State Assemblywoman for the Rockaways had resigned from her position and decided to throw her hat in the ring and seek election to the post.
“At that time the assembly district included all of Rockaway; a piece of Rosedale and a piece of Howard Beach,” she recalls.
Winning a resounding victory, Ms. Pheffer began her 24 year tenure as the Rockaways representative in Albany.
“My many years as a representative in the New York State Assembly afforded me an extraordinary amount of opportunities to improve the lives of my constituents. I learned so much about the operations of state government and the most effective ways of ensuring the passage of important legislation,” she recalls.
From 1995-2011, Ms. Pheffer served as Chairwoman of the Committee on Consumer Affairs and Protection and had previously chaired the Assembly’s Election Law Committee as well as the Subcommittee on Outreach and Oversight of Senior Citizen Programs. She also served as President of the National Order of Women Legislators from 1995 to 1996.
In 2011, Ms. Pheffer was first named as a consideration for the position of Queens County Clerk subsequent to the passing of her predecessor Gloria D’Amico.
“It was a bittersweet moment for me, as I was up to the many responsibilities of being the Queens County clerk, but it was also hard to depart from something that meant so much to me for 24 years, “ she recalled.
For the last four years, Ms. Pheffer has utilized her seemingly infinite reservoir of energy, enthusiasm and resources to making significant improvements in the Queens jury system.
“My job as commissioner of jurors is to make sure that there are jury members for the Criminal, Civil and Supreme Court cases. An essential aspect of my job is to ensure that the ethnic, religious and racial diversity of the borough eventually becomes endemic to our legal system,” she intoned.
“It’s important that everyone understand that it’s the jury system that makes this country work. It facilitates justice,” she added.
Having addressed both NAACP and immigrant rights groups throughout the borough, Ms. Pheffer says that she has discovered that one of the major reasons that there is such a low percentage of minorities sitting on juries is because many people are not filling out their juror questionnaires correctly. “We are rectifying this problem with the help of groups that advocate for greater juror participation,” she said.
Speaking about the modernization of juror facilities, Ms. Pheffer says, “now jurors can enjoy wi-fi and air conditioning while they serve on a jury and everything is being done to make their experience more comfortable.”
Ms. Pheffer brims with excitement as she discusses the future at the Queens County clerk’s office. “Thus far we’ve made a lot of progress in the area of electronic filing and we know that will be highly beneficial to the public we serve,” she says.
She says that in two months all mandated medical malpractice cases will be available electronically as will mandated commercial suits.
“We are a very forward looking office and in my capacity as a public servant, I want to ease the bureaucratic burden of the people of Queens and make this borough an example of efficiency for the City of New York,” she says.