Over the past few years, embarrassing news stories about the elected clerks in Nashville have piled up.
One clerk thought it was a higher priority to attend local funerals than to attend to the duties of his position and was filmed in a bath robe at home after he told a reporter he was in a work related meeting. Fortunately, the voters elected a replacement who by all accounts takes the public’s trust seriously and is hard at work. Another clerk thought working part of 3 days every week was acceptable and when confronted with this fact just said “It is what it is.” He is now reportedly resigning under the unprecedented threat of ouster by the District Attorney. Then, most recently, it has been reported that a clerk accepted a $40 “gratuity” for each wedding ceremony he performed during the normal operating hours of his office. His response was that it was allowed by state law. I think most people’s response was “So what? We’re already paying you to work 40 hours a week – why would you accept (much less expect) an additional $40 per ceremony?”
With all these embarrassing stories, it would be easy to conclude that there’s something inherent in these positions that leads to a warped sense of responsibility to the public. There are, however, just as many examples of dedicated public servants who take their jobs seriously. Jo Ann North left office as the Assessor of Property with a great reputation and an organization of which the city could be proud. That tradition continues with her successor. Personally, my almost daily interaction with the Circuit Court Clerk’s office gives me confidence that it is run professionally as well. Likewise, the current Trustee has served the City in numerous capacities for as long as I can remember and has always shown respect for the people paying his salary. History has shown that not everyone sees a clerk’s job as a lifetime opportunity to goof off.
So, how does the city figure out who will take the job seriously when it replaces the Criminal Court Clerk? Making sure the process is open to everyone interested is essential. Having the Bar associations review the applicants is a good step. Appointing an independent group to establish some desirable qualifications, then review and rank the applicants could help. There’s probably no single answer to this question but there are plenty of ways to subject the process to more than just political deal making.
As it currently stands, the Council is on a path to select a replacement for the Criminal Court Clerk about 30 days after his anticipated resignation. That Council election could occur on the last scheduled meeting of this Council’s term. At least 15 of the Council Members voting at that meeting will not be returning for the next term. If history is any indicator, the number will be greater. None of these departing Council Members will have to justify their vote to a constituent. They will all have moved on if there is a problem. Having the Metro Council select a replacement for the Criminal Court Clerk on its last meeting of a term is a dangerous, political thing to do.
The Council can, however, avoid the pitfalls of the timing of this election if they insert some simple safeguards into the process. I hope the Council will have an open, transparent and objective process which looks for, vets and selects for someone who:
1) Has experience in Criminal Court;
2) Has management experience;
3) Has shown a commitment to public service; and
4) Will represent the diversity of our city.
The Council has an opportunity to demonstrate that our city is serious about these positions. I hope it will take advantage of the opportunity.