During a special meeting Thursday, East Ridge City Council members delayed the election of a new court clerk and discussed the possibility of having the clerk's duties performed by the Hamilton County General Sessions Court clerk for the next 18 months.
The council decided in November to change the court clerk from a position appointed by the city judge to an elected position and initially set a special election for March 5. But Thursday, councilmen voted 3-2 to push the election back to the next county general election in August 2014. Mayor Brent Lambert and Councilman Larry Sewell voted against the delay.
Councilmen debated for about an hour before voting on the second reading of the ordinance. Vice Mayor Jim Bethune said he didn't think the 30-day qualifying period gave potential candidates enough time to prepare for the election.
"We gave people less than 30 days to pick up the papers and qualify," he said. "We've got three people who are qualified, and I've had three or four people tell me they would have qualified for the position with more time."
One of the reasons the council voted to switch to an elected clerk was because of what City Manager Tim Gobble described as "systematic administrative failures" within the office.
Gobble brought the issue to the council after disciplining Court Clerk JoAnn Thomas for insubordination and failure to notify witnesses properly in a Sept. 3 robbery case in which his daughter was a victim.
The councilmen agreed Thursday there are problems in the office.
"We've got plenty of time between now and 2014 to see what's going on," Bethune said.
Gobble pushed for an immediate special election, saying that having an elected court clerk would clarify who is in charge of the office. The City Charter gives administrative power to the city manager, while judicial matters are under the control of the city judge, new City Attorney Hal North said.
Lambert said the arrangement has caused some confusion.
"There's a tug-of-war going on here," he said.
Councilman Marc Gravitt suggested having the General Sessions Court clerk take care of the city clerk's duties until the 2014 election.
"That would alleviate us having to appoint [a replacement] and alleviate the need for a special election," he said. "And this would be someone who already knows what the job entails, because they've been doing it."
State law allows for such an agreement.
"The clerk of the General Sessions Court in the county may by agreement with the city or town serve as the clerk of the City Court," the Tennessee Code Annotated reads.
Councilmen agreed to look into the possibility, but Hamilton County Chief Deputy Clerk Susan Sissom said she wasn't sure how such an arrangement would work.
"We have never done that as far as I'm aware," she said.
Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said the idea was new to him, as well, and he wasn't prepared to offer an opinion on the possible arrangement Thursday.
"I'm not aware of it ever having happened before," he said.
The East Ridge court clerk's office declined to comment on Thursday's meeting.