Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield says his plan to name his deputy, Anita Ebersole, as City Court clerk this month is a move to help that office transition to modern times with a paperless system approved recently by the City Council.
"The fact is, we need to improve the way we operate the City Court clerk's office," Littlefield said Sunday night by phone from the Detroit Auto Show.
"All I'm trying to do right now is get the records in order and get the methods in order so that when there is a transition to Sessions Court or whatever happens, we'll be able to do it seamlessly."
He said Ebersole's experience and her ability to "bring order out of disorder" will help achieve that end.
But others can't figure out why he's in such a rush just weeks before he leaves office, unless he's found Ebersole a safe berth where she can keep collecting her $95,000-a-year salary another few months until she can retire.
Especially since the court clerk's office has been run by an interim clerk for the last four and a half years at just more than half Ebersole's salary.
The two city judges served by the clerk's office are offended and suspicious at Littlefield's proposal, which is on the Jan. 22 City Council agenda.
Judge Russell Bean said he knows and likes Ebersole, but also doesn't know whether she's qualified.
"He told it down in the clerk's office that Anita needed a place to go until she could retire," Bean said Sunday night. "I think he's totally off base with this. I hope the council will see through this."
City Judge Sherry Paty said, "With two months left in his term, he's wanting to appoint his administrative assistant to the position of clerk. As far as I know, she has no qualifications to be the clerk. The only fair solution would be to let the new mayor name a new clerk -- someone qualified, who could be paid commensurate with the position and would hopefully stay for a awhile."
Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd said she expects the proposal will go either to the Legal and Legislative or Personnel committee for thorough discussion before the council votes.
Ladd said she only recently learned that interim clerk Jan Turner had served all those years without ever getting the title or salary that comes with the job. Turner is paid just less than $56,000 a year; Paty said she thought former clerk Ed Hammond was paid about $85,000 when he retired.
"We will be having some pretty serious discussions, I would imagine," Ladd said. "I think we will have to look at equity and what is right by law."
Littlefield said Ebersole wouldn't have to take a pay cut if she's named clerk.
"In past cases, people who found themselves in this position have been put into positions somewhat commensurate with their skills and ability -- they generally didn't get any raises, but they didn't get any reduction in salary."
Councilwoman Sally Robinson said shifting the City Court clerk's office to digital files will present "very special challenges" and that Ebersole could be "kind of a liaison to provide them with a resource to facilitate this change."
Bean said the judges' objections don't have anything to do with going paperless, though he said they believe the city should implement the brand-new system in some less-complicated office first.
Littlefield said he tried to counter the judges' "resistance to change" when he met with them last week to say he intended to appoint a clerk -- although he didn't tell them who it would be.
"I went to the judges primarily to tell them they will get to keep their paper and their rubber stamps for as long as they want to," he said.