published Thursday, September 17th, 2009

County commissioners decline to extend magistrate contracts


by Matt Wilson
Audio clip

Hamilton County Commission meeting

A request to lengthen county magistrates' contracts to more than a year hit a wall Wednesday at the Hamilton County Commission meeting.

Though commissioners said the past year of the county's judicial commissioner program was the least problematic they've seen, some still balked at a request by Chief Judicial Commissioner Larry Ables to stretch out contracts to two years.

"I'm very sympathetic with your request to extend it for more than one year," Commissioner Richard Casavant told Mr. Ables. "As you, I'm sure, are well aware, that's our only control over your group, the renewal of the contract."

Judicial commissioners, often called magistrates, perform limited judicial duties, such as setting bonds and signing warrants, when General Sessions Court judges are not on the bench.

Mr. Ables, who came to the commission's meeting Wednesday to present a quarterly update on the magistrates' work, pointed out that there is a process in which magistrates can be removed.

"That is an administrative decision that would be made by me," he said. "You all agreed that that was one way, if there was a problem with someone."

Mr. Ables said a two-year term for magistrates would make it easier to implement new programs.

Commissioners Jim Coppinger and Fred Skillern said they agreed with Dr. Casavant.

"Until I get to where I feel more comfortable with it, I cannot ever vote for anything more than a one-year term," Mr. Skillern said.

The annual contracts of the judicial commissioners are renewed on Oct. 31. Commissioner Larry Henry, chairman of the commission's Security and Corrections Committee, said the four magistrate positions have been advertised and interviews would start in the next few weeks.

WHAT'S HAPPENED

After receiving a number of complaints, commissioners in 2007 approved several changes to the magistrates program, including raising their pay and shortening their terms from four years to one.

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