Hammond proposes ‘super clerk’ (Hint: It’s not Shanks)

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

Mike Hammond has a plan to streamline the operation of the Knox County courts – put him in charge.

On Nov. 8 – amid the Election Day chaos – a hand-delivered envelope with the word “Confidential” scrawled across the front landed on Mayor Tim Burchett’s desk.

Inside was a memo from Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond, a career radio broadcaster and 10-year county commissioner who ousted incumbent Criminal Court Clerk Joy McCroskey in 2014. Hammond’s letterhead identifies him as Knox County Clerk of the Courts. His office oversees Criminal Court, Criminal Sessions Court and Fourth Circuit Court.

The memo to Burchett (available in full at ShopperNewsNow.com) begins with a reference to an Oct. 19 TV news story slamming Circuit Court Clerk Cathy Quist Shanks’ office, which oversees Circuit, Juvenile and the civil court division of General Sessions Court, for not generating excess fees for the past four years. County fee offices are generally expected to be self-supporting and to turn over excess funds to county general government.

After Shopper News broke the story online last week, Shanks responded Friday with her own letter to Burchett (also available at ShopperNewsNow.com).

She called Hammond’s contentions incorrect – particularly that his office would provide technology upgrades.

“The Criminal Court Clerk currently relies on obsolete document storage, retrieval and delivery methods that have been in use for decades,” Shanks wrote. In contrast, the Circuit Court Clerk’s office uses an electronic content management system and has since early 2015.

Shanks said her office currently collects 95 percent of the fees it generates, and she said the financial benefits he claims from consolidation are “unrealistic.”

Hammond offered two alternatives for consolidation – a merger of criminal and civil sessions courts, which he said has the advantages of using his office’s “highly effective procedures and collection methods” and of moving all the courts toward paperless technology. He also said this merger would provide the benefit of a savings-producing “synergy” and could be accomplished with a private act of the General Assembly and a two-thirds vote of County Commission.

The second alternative would be to eliminate one of the elected clerks.

“We believe that this option can only be made effective at the end of Ms. Shanks’ and my current term in office.”

It is unclear who “we” is. And Hammond suggests that this measure would also require a private legislative act to accomplish. But there’s a glitch – the Circuit Court Clerk, like the Clerk and Master of Chancery Court, is a constitutional office and cannot be abolished by legislative act. Such a feat would have to be done by constitutional amendment.

If it could be accomplished, Hammond’s proposal would create a “super clerk” who would not be subject to term limits and could have at least 150 employees.

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