|Judge Terry Vann's call for city court clerk Debbie Cook's
resignation at Monday's council meeting is not the first time the judge
and the clerk have clashed. In fact this is about the third public
altercation between the two since Mr. Vann became city judge.
The first public falling out was back in October of 2003 when Mayor Brookshire approved a controversial $15,000.00 pay raise for Judge Vann for the addition of a once monthly Environmental Court. Ms. Cook openly questioned the rationality and timing of that raise that came at a time of extremely tight budgets while other city employees went without raises. Ms. Cook also went on to request raises for her staff with the rational that if the judge was deserving of a raise for additional court duties, so should her staff that would have to handled the paper work for the new court. Ms. Cook's cooperation with the local media's investigation of the pay raise which resulted in a stinging editorial toward the mayor by the paper, also prompted a public tongue lashing by Mayor Brookshire at a subsequent council meeting. Judge Vann's current pay is $51,710.00 plus benefits. City court meets one day per week and environmental court meets once monthly.
The next flare up came in February of 2005 over an organization established by Judge Vann. The corporation known as Friends Of Law Enforcement was an organization created to support Lenoir City's police department. The problem arose when it was discovered that some fines in Judge Vann's city court may have been being dismissed in lieu of payments to the non profit organization. Ms. Cook was critical of the judge's decision to allow donations to his NPO rather than being received through the city court. Friends Of Law Enforcement was ultimately discontinued.
The latest head knocking comes from two different interpretations of the same document. At Monday's council meeting Judge Vann presented facts and figures from a document he received from the clerk's office. He reported that the document shows that over the last ten years Ms. Cook as the court clerk has failed to collect some $347,000.00 in fines and court costs. however Ms. Cooks interpretation of the same document would indicate a far different outcome. Over the last ten years the report shows that the clerks office has collected over 1.4 million dollars in fines and costs.
The outstanding fees in the report have a number of explanations according to Ms. Cook.. Many have been turned over to the state as delinquent and at such time that the owing defendants attempt to renew or apply for for a drivers licenses, the fees will be collected. Some of the fees are shown as outstanding while the defendants are still making payments on their fines, a practice allowed by the judge. Re-arrest warrants have been issued on some defendants for failure to pay. And some have just skipped out on their debts and cannot be found. Ms. Cook feels that the report clearly shows that she and her staff have made all attempts for collection available to them.
Two years ago, Judge Bill Russell reported to county officials that the county was losing three million dollars per year in the loss of fines and costs. The loss of these fees is is a problem in all jurisdictions. Judge Vann's allegations that Ms. Cook has been negligent in her duties is at the very least disingenuous. And to make his allegations at a formal council meeting with no prior discussion with Ms. Cook was very unprofessional. Judge Vann stated that he had not discussed this matter with Ms. Cook prior to the meeting. It is unimaginable that the judge would not have taken his concerns directly to the court clerk first.
While the judge feels that there are avenues to replace Ms. Cook as court clerk, the city charter is clear. Article 8, section 7 states: Shall serve as city court clerk. The recorder/Treasures shall be Clerk of City court. It is not likely that the council nor the judge can alter the charter. At Monday's meeting, Ms. Cook asked for a meeting with the judge and council to address this matter. This meeting should be given top priority to allow both sides to present their view of the matter to put this issue to rest once and for all.
For the welfare of the citizens of Lenoir City, this every two year flair up needs to be put to rest and the respective parties should be allowed to perform their jobs.