Former Lenoir City clerk says charter will be violated if judge gets way

By Hugh G. Willett

LENOIR CITY - A long-running political dispute will come to a head Monday over who gets to choose a clerk for Lenoir City municipal court.

Judge Terry Vann wants to appoint the clerk, who would assume duties historically handled by the city clerk/treasurer/recorder who's elected by voters.

"The legality is what I'm concerned with," said Douglas "Buddy" Hines, who agrees with former clerk/treasurer/recorder Debbie Cook that the judge is overreaching. "I'd hate to do something now and later get a black eye."

Cook retired in April 2007, citing a dispute with Vann. She alleges he transferred fine payments into a private law enforcement organization. Vann said Cook left $347,000 in fines and court costs uncollected. Probes by the TBI and state comptroller resulted in no charges.

Cook's interim replacement, Maggie Hunt, was expected to serve until the next general election, in November 2008.

In December 2007, the City Council discussed an initiative to change the city charter to make the position of clerk/treasurer/recorder appointed instead of elected, and voters will decide that issue in August.

Then, at a council meeting April 28, Vann suggested that a 2004 state law empowers him to make the appointment of the clerk for his court. Vann said state law makes him responsible for keeping the court docket and authorizes the election, appointment or designation of a person to serve as municipal court clerk.

The council passed an ordinance drafted by Vann to that effect with little discussion. On Monday, the council will consider the second and final reading.

"For 100 years the people of Lenoir City have been smart enough to be able to choose their own city clerk," said Cook, who was elected three times to the post.

She and Hines are concerned the council is about to violate the city charter and state law if it approves Vann's proposal.

What the judge is ignoring, according to Cook and others, is that the Lenoir City charter, first adopted in 1908, takes precedence and makes the job of court clerk/treasurer/recorder an elected position.

"According to the city charter, the position of clerk/recorder/treasurer is one person and that person is an elected official," Hines said.

Lenoir City attorney Shannon Littleton acknowledges the "potential for conflict."

Should the voters decide in August to keep the position elected, and assuming someone runs in November and is elected to the clerk/recorder/treasurer position, that person could claim the duties of court clerk, he admitted.

"We might have to get a clarification on this later," Littleton said. "We're not trying to usurp the power of the treasurer/recorder's office."

Littleton got an opinion from the Municipal Technical Advisory Service regarding Vann's proposed ordinance. He said MTAS had concerns about the legality of the ordinance but that he has opinions from other lawyers who support the judge's interpretation.

MTAS declined to comment.

The duties of clerk/recorder/treasurer, while technically assigned to Hunt, actually are performed with the help of several assistants, one of whom would be assigned the clerk duties reporting to Vann, Littleton said.

Hines said he would prefer to work within the existing charter change process, wait until the August ballot and let voters decide whether or not the position of clerk/treasurer/recorder should be elected or appointed.