Hamilton County Commission hopes pay raise will lure new magistrate candidates

Hamilton County Commission hopes pay raise will lure new magistrate candidates

April 19th, 2018 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

In this 2015 staff file photo, the Hamilton County Courthouse, right, is seen from the Unum building in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Hamilton County Chief Magistrate Randy Russell came to the county commission with a simple request Wednesday.

He left with his job on the line.

Russell's request to add a part-time magistrate took a strange turn when county commissioners decided to test whether a nearly 20 percent pay raise for magistrates they passed in February would attract more candidates for the post.

The four magistrates, or judicial commissioners, work nights and weekends at the county jail, signing warrants and setting bonds. Russell was asking for an on-call magistrate who could fill in if the others were unavailable.

When the resolution came up, Commissioner Greg Martin objected that it hadn't gone through committee. Commissioner Greg Beck said those resolutions never go through committee.

"I've been here longer than anybody; I was one of the people that created the program, and I don't remember that ever happening," Beck said. He said the chief magistrate always has recommended full-time candidates to the commission, so it wouldn't make sense to set a precedent by handling a part-time recommendation differently.

"Past practice is what the order of the day is," he said.

Commissioner Joe Graham protested. The commission created and supervises the magistrate program, he said. "This is our job, to set precedent."

That reminded County Attorney Rheubin Taylor that two magistrate terms were ending. He asked commissioners if they wanted to reappoint both — which could be done by resolution — or advertise the positions.

In February, the commission raised pay for the magistrates from $65,000 a year to $80,000, with $4,000 annual increases until the pay reaches $92,000. The idea came from Commissioner Tim Boyd, who said the magistrates were underpaid compared to others in judicial positions and weren't allowed to practice law to earn extra income. Boyd was absent Tuesday.

Russell said he's one of the magistrates whose term is ending and Brandy Spurgin-Floyd is the other. They definitely want to stay on, he said.

But, Commissioner Jim Fields asked, why not see who else might be interested?

"Since we've increased the pay substantially, we might want to consider opening up the process to other applicants, but I'm not sure we have time to do that" before April 30, Fields said.

Not a problem, Taylor said. On April 25, commissioners can approve a resolution extending the two terms by 30 days or so, which would allow time to advertise for a new pool of applicants.

The magistrates' terms are staggered. Magistrate Andrew Basler's and Ron Powers' terms will end in October, Taylor said.

Also on Tuesday, outgoing Register of Deeds Pam Hurst was honored for her 24 years of service to Hamilton County.

State Rep. Marc Gravitt, who seeks the Republican nomination to replace her, praised Hurst with a framed copy of a resolution passed by the state House and Senate and signed by their speakers and Gov. Bill Haslam.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.