Even with 25 years as a police officer and nearly 23 years working in the court system, 4th Judicial Circuit Trial Court Administrator Joe Stelma isn’t really planning his retirement.
But he has reached the point in his career with the court that he can point to accomplishments that will be his legacy.
Stelma is the recipient of the Jacksonville Bar Association’s 2018 Liberty Bell Award. It’s presented each year to someone who is not an attorney, but has made a significant contribution to the legal system in Northeast Florida.
His job is about 80 percent related to human resources, considering that more than 1,200 people are employed in the court system. He and his team work daily in the areas of case flow, fiscal management, information systems and security, among other areas.
“I cannot do my work without the court program managers that assist me in all aspects of operations,” Stelma said.
After growing up in a family that now includes 15 police officers going as far back as a great uncle who was a captain in the Jacksonville Police Department in the 1930s, it was natural for Stelma to join the force after serving in the Navy for eight years.
He pinned on a badge May 30, 1970, and worked his way up through the ranks. He eventually was assigned to be head of security at the old courthouse on East Bay Street.
Stelma retired from JSO on Oct. 31, 1995, and on Nov. 3 went to work for the court as a grant employee. His first project was to help develop Jacksonville’s drug court, at the time just the second in the state.
With a $430,000 Law Enforcement Block Grant, he started what has grown into an array of alternative justice programs for juveniles, adults and veterans suffering from addictions and for people with mental heath issues.
“We call them ‘problem-solving courts,’” Stelma said. “I was fortunate enough to be where I was to get us off the ground.”
Over the years, the circuit’s drug courts have been recognized as national model programs.
“We’ve entertained hundreds of city and state officials who came here to see what Jacksonville has,” said Stelma.
He’s also proud of being the first court administrator in the Duval County Courthouse at 501 W. Adams St.
The building will have been in operation for six years later this month.
Having what Stelma describes as “probably the biggest courthouse in the state” allows all the legal services the community needs to be consolidated in a single location.
“We are a one-stop shop” for the thousands of people who have contact with the court system each month, he said.
Stelma, who declines to reveal his age, said retirement is beginning to enter his mind.
“I’m to the point in my life where it’s already a thought process,” he said, and there have been conversations on the subject with Chief Judge Mark Mahon.
“The chief judge and I will know when it’s time to go. He’s encouraging me to stay as long as I like. It’s going to be a bit longer.”