Profile: Rachel Ezzell Berry
How’s this for a first-day-on-the-job story? Hours before Rachel Ezzell Berry began her duties as Delco’s Register of Wills, Pennsylvania went into a two-week COVID lockdown. There was no childcare center for her 18-month-old son, no school for her 9-year-old stepson, her husband had just calculated an 88% drop in earnings for the family business: a janitorial service with contracts for schools, movie theaters, and department stores; her mother could not come to help that morning because early contact tracing had led to her door, so she had to get a COVID test that day which meant that she, as well as Rachel’s entire household, were under quarantine until the test results came back (negative); and Rachel had just recently learned that she was two months pregnant.
Berry’s coping strategy? “I remember what Winston Churchill said: ‘when you’re going through hell, keep going.’” She remembers, too, when arising daily before the sun is up, before the kids are awake, before (now) nursing the baby, before her mom arrives to help with “the littles” in the morning, before her husband and step-son go to their home office for work and online school, that “I have a job that allows me to rule on petitions” at dawn from a laptop at home when millions of mothers have lost jobs or quit jobs due to COVID.
Berry was appointed Register of Wills after Mary Walk was tapped to head Delco’s Office of Judicial Support. Walk updated Berry on the reforms she had instituted since her election in 2017, but in mid-March, 2020, Berry was sailing in uncharted waters. Not knowing if the lockdown would be lifted in two weeks or continue for “maybe as long as a month,” she definitely knew that “the first order of business” at the Register of Wills office was to provide essential services online. Delco residents get their marriage licenses at the Register of Wills office, they file for probate and estate litigation there, as well as for adoption and guardianship. Berry had to immediately meet those life-and-death needs and she had to do it with a staff of 8 “dedicated” staff members, which was seven players short of a full team.
In short order, Berry acquired laptops so staff could work from home and enabled Delco residents to access online the information necessary to conduct their business. Still, residents often had to physically go to the Register of Wills office to submit original paperwork. Furniture had to be rearranged and plexiglass barriers installed to protect residents and the small staff needed to deliver on-site services. In her pregnancy’s second trimester, Berry (wearing her face mask) crawled around the floor of the office with a tape measure and roll of masking tape, marking off six-foot-long distances.
Berry’s big goal was to move the majority of the office’s operations online so that legal documents could be submitted electronically. Virtual services and e-filing would keep residents and staff out of the enclosed office space. She achieved that goal by asking detailed questions in the weekly meetings she initiated with the office’s computer platform provider, carefully reviewing Delco’s existing contract for online services, and discovering that the county was already paying for e-filing capacity. That capacity had simply never been turned on and worked out. Berry turned it on. And worked it out. The office of the Register of Wills has since relied on virtual services to issue 1,300 marriage licenses, probate 1,000 estates, conduct virtual hearings in those cases where a will is contested, and developed e-filing to accept Orphans’ Court filings. During her first year in office, Berry ran a budget surplus and filled all seven of the vacant staff positions. Visit the Register of Wills Online System Services page to get a sense of how thoroughly Berry has redesigned the operations of the office.
What background prepares a lawyer and former federal law clerk to re-design, while simultaneously administering, a quasi-judicial government agency? After graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s in Business Administration, Economics, and International Business from Temple University, Berry took a job at Independence Blue Cross. The U.S. was in “the last crisis,” the financial meltdown, and business needs were evolving. Berry’s director at work asked if she had any tech savvy, and she answered “yes – with a straight face.” She was reassigned as a “Business Systems Analyst” and immediately drove to Borders Bookstore on Baltimore Pike to buy “computers for dummies books,” devoured them, and succeeded as a Business Systems Analyst for two years before entering the University of Michigan Law School. As a law clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court, Berry had seen that official documents in both civil and criminal cases could be e-filed, so she was familiar with that process. Looking back from her perch as Register of Wills in a pandemic, Berry sees herself as someone “knocked from crisis to crisis and picking up skills along the way that become useful in the next crisis.”
Perhaps Berry’s greatest skill is her ability to communicate, collaborate, and cooperate with colleagues. Her review of the last year is punctuated with references to the “team work” in her office (where party registration is no longer a job qualification), the practical advice from Mary Walk and the PA Registers of Wills she consulted as “the new kid on the block,” and President Judge Kevin Kelly’s readiness to “work cooperatively” in this crisis for the benefit of everyone using Delco’s Register of Wills and Court of Common Pleas. COVID has made clear that partisanship has no place in the delivery of good government to taxpayers. At the same time, COVID has amplified the fact that “elections have consequences.” Those in charge when a crisis hits need to be ready and able to assess capacity and act decisively.
Berry looks upon the COVID-caused successes of the last year as “bittersweet.” On the one hand, she views the Democratic Party’s victories in 2017 and 2019 as life-saving for the county. Not only did Mary Walk build a reform foundation in the Register of Wills before COVID, the all-Democratic County Council was willing to meet the 2020 crisis with a level of energy and determination never evidenced in a Republican county administration. On the other hand, she regrets that the Republicans’ “utter lack of long-term planning” meant that the county’s service-providing offices had been neglected and “capacities were not in place” when COVID hit. Berry regards her ability to simply “turn on” the dormant e-filing system as a reminder of the “serious disparity between what the County paid for and what we have received.”
Running for office has been an aspiration for Berry, something she thought she would do “some day – maybe not with a baby and a toddler during a pandemic.” Still, she has acquired the skills, the experience, and the county-wide networks needed to mount a successful county-wide campaign. Berry doesn’t need an “elections for dummies” book to win this race. She just needs Democratic voters in Delco to pay attention to the extraordinary work she has done in the Register of Wills office this past year and elect her to serve for another four years.