East Ridge City Council members deadlocked on a vote to change the City Court clerk to an elected position Thursday night.
Mayor Brent Lambert and Councilman Darwin Branam voted to pass the ordinance, which would establish a procedure for electing the City Court clerk to a four-year term -- instead of the position being appointed by the city judge. Councilmen Jim Bethune and Denny Manning voted against the ordinance. Vice Mayor Larry Sewell was absent, resulting in a 2-2 tie.
City Manager Tim Gobble suggested the change at the end of the Sept. 27 council meeting -- weeks after he suspended Court Clerk JoAnn Thomas and formally reprimanded two other court employees for "insubordination" after he said they failed to tell him about court scheduling changes for a Sept. 3 robbery case in which his daughter was the victim.
Gobble said audits in 2010 and 2011 revealed problems in the clerk's office that predate his tenure as city manager -- including failure to properly maintain records, failure to collect fines and failure to alert victims, police and witnesses of court scheduling changes.
City Judge Arvin Reingold staunchly defended the court clerk during the meeting and said he thinks the change is unwarranted.
"I have never heard so much double-talk and gibberish in my life," he interrupted the council. "This [ordinance] is here for one reason alone: an incident that took place in September. I would urge you, for fairness, justice and equity, to start looking at what caused this, what precipitated this."
City Attorney John Anderson said he does not think the ordinance is a reaction to Gobble's conflict with Thomas, but instead is aimed at bringing East Ridge into agreement with a 2008 opinion issued by the Tennessee attorney general that says cities like East Ridge should have an elected -- not appointed -- court clerk.
If the ordinance is passed, the city would hold a special election -- which would cost around $10,000 -- to elect a new court clerk. That clerk would serve until a regular election in August 2013.
Bethune said he isn't sure if a special election is necessary, and asked Gobble why he only brought the issue before the council now. Gobble said this is the first chance he's had to suggest the change.
"When I came in we had a pretty significant budget deficit, we had to clean up from the April storms, we had the budget process and a whole bunch of important issues to deal with on a day-to-day basis first," he said.
Manning, who voted against the ordinance, said he thinks the clerk's office does a great job.
"I think we've got some great workers down there and they do a great job," he said. "I think we need to back off and let them do it."
Branam said the court clerk's office isn't fulfilling all of its duties.
"If they're not doing what they've been told to do, they're not doing a good job," he said.
The ordinance will be reconsidered at the next City Council meeting on Oct. 25.