Judge on clerk's case over fines Says city owed $347,889 in outstanding collections

By ANN HINCH, Special to the News Sentinel
February 14, 2007

LENOIR CITY - Lenoir City Judge Terry Vann said he is asking the Tennessee comptroller to audit municipal court financial records, and he alleges the city clerk is refusing to turn outstanding debts over to a collection agency.

Under the city charter, City Recorder/Treasurer Debbie Cook, or one of her deputies, is obliged to serve as municipal court clerk.

At its Monday meeting, Vann told the Lenoir City Council the court has $347,889 in outstanding collections such as traffic tickets, dating from approximately 1998 through late 2006.

He thinks Cook should resign as court clerk.

"The police risk their lives every time they make a stop," Vann said. "And when the word gets out - and it does - that the fines aren't collected," it undermines the authority of those officers and of the court, he said.

"This is the first I've heard about it," Cook immediately told council. "(Vann's) never discussed it with me."

A few years ago, Vann asked council to hire a collection agency to pursue outstanding fines and costs.

He said the council chose Maryville Collection Service. Cook said she does not recall an agency being chosen or Mayor Matt Brookshire signing a contract.

She said no collection agency contacted her directly, although she heard that her clerks were asked for original, uncollected warrants when she was not there.

Doug Hawkins, outside sales representative for Maryville Collection Service, noted he first spoke with someone at the Lenoir City Hall two or three years ago. "I followed up four to five different times, but I never did the business," he said.

Cook said she would not resign, that she was elected and only the voters could replace her as clerk of the court or vote a charter amendment to turn the task over to someone else.

Vann said he obtained the $347,889 figure through his own investigations into public records.

Cook reported during 1997 through the present a total of $283,100 in outstanding fines and court costs. Over the same period, her office has collected just more than $1.4 million.

"I have tried," Cook said. "We send a letter; we call them. We do all we can, but we can't sit and do court all the time." She added a number of violators cannot be reached after they have left court.

The one thing on which Vann and Cook seem to agree is that someone else needs to serve as court clerk.

"As the judge, I have a duty to see that the court is run properly and efficiently," Vann said.

Cook said she would be happy for court billing to get its own office as in other cities, since hers is already responsible for city employees' payroll and tax billing and collections.

Sherry Kast, communications officer with the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, said a check of records Tuesday showed no written complaint has been received on Cook from Vann or anyone else.