Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond would like to put most of the county’s court system under one umbrella, a move that he says would help the offices “operate more efficiently” and “serve to once again generate excess fees” for local government.
His counterpart - Knox County Circuit Court Clerk Cathy Shanks - says the plan is "regressive" and the supposed financial benefits "are not realistic."
Hammond's proposal comes in the wake of a WBIR 10News investigation in late October that detailed the county Circuit Court Office's failure to turn over any money to the county coffers – for the fourth year in a row and the fifth time in the past six years.
As it stands, the criminal court clerk is responsible for the criminal, sessions and fourth circuit courts. The circuit court clerk oversees civil sessions and juvenile court.
Hammond's plan, which was detailed in a 2-page memo marked “confidential” and sent to Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett on Nov. 8, provides two options. WBIR obtained a copy of the memo under the state's open records law.
Hammond first suggests merging the criminal and civil sessions courts and putting them under the criminal court clerk's purview. He notes that the sessions court judges already hear cases in both courts and it “would be a relatively easy and smooth transition.”
“A primary benefit would be the efficiency of utilizing criminal sessions’ highly-effective procedures and collection efforts in all offices,” Hammond wrote in the memo. “The synergy of one office would provide immediate savings.”
He said the move could take effect by spring.
“I would be giving up my job," Hammond told WBIR on Friday. "I don’t know many politicians who would be willing to give up their job to have (their duties) combined under another entity. But I’m willing to have that discussion.”
Hammond’s second proposal - which he favors - would combine both operations but put everything under the control of the circuit court clerk, since the state constitution mandates that counties have a circuit court clerk, but not a criminal court clerk.
Hammond proposes making that move by September 2018 when his and Circuit Court Clerk Cathy Shanks' terms in office end. Since neither are term-limited they could each run for the circuit court clerk position.
Hammond said he would seek such a position. Shanks said she hasn't decided.
Each of Hammond's proposals would require approval by the state General Assembly and two-thirds of the Knox County Commission.
Other counties, including Blount, have combined their court systems, but Shanks said Hammond's plan isn't that simple.
“I think it’s regressive," she told WBIR on Friday. "I think what he wants to do – he compared it to Blount County – and that’s the model for small counties. Large counties don’t do that because it provides better customer service for the court systems to be divided so that they can meet customer needs better."
Shanks also said the Fourth Circuit Court "ledgers and books cannot be co-mingled with the three divisions of the circuit court clerk."
"It was created by state public law. The criminal court and the fourth circuit clerk were created by a public act. It’s a completely different animal . . . they’re very different creatures," she said.
Shanks responded to Hammond's memo to the county mayor with her own, which she delivered Friday afternoon.
In her memo to the county mayor, she said Hammond proposes technology upgrades but yet her office is far more along than his.
"Our office has worked closely with the Knox County Office of Information Technology over the past two years to develop and install our electronic records management system," she wrote. "That contract was deliberately designed so that other county agencies could build upon what we have done."
The county’s Circuit Court Clerk’s Office has had problems for years collecting money.
It is one of five county fee offices. These departments are run by elected leaders and are supposed to be self-funded from the fees they collect. But, they also are expected to contribute to the county’s overall bottom line.
Shanks said collections in her office are down as a result of 2012 sate legislation that took away workers' compensation cases and short-term mental health commitments from circuit court clerks across the state.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett on Friday said little about the proposal and has not met with Hammond or Shanks to discuss it.
“The County Clerks of Court are independently elected officeholders and their offices are governed by state law,” the mayor said. “This is a very complex issue, but ensuring quality services to the citizens who depend on these offices should be a top priority.”