Shelby County Commissioners closed their Monday (Nov. 13) meeting requesting an update on the current investigation into Shelby County Clerk Wanda Halbert’s management of her office and to inform them whether official replacement proceedings should be considered.
The add-on item was the latest pitch in the long-simmering feud between the oft-criticized Halbert and an increasingly short-fused commission.
“I don’t expect the (Hamilton County District Attorney General Coty) …Wamp, would herself report to us. I doubt she’s able to comment. I don’t know that, but I would expect we could have someone from that office to give us an update on the process and just…let the public hear that something is being done,” said sponsor commissioner Brandon Morrison.
Wamp was appointed by Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft. In June, Shelby County District Attorney General Steve Mulroy recused himself from the investigation, prompting Wamp’s selection.
The closure of the clerk’s satellite Poplar Plaza office, on Nov. 8, sparked the latest call for action to be taken against Halbert, who began her second four-term as Shelby Clerk Sept. 1, 2022. The Clerk’s Office also has been deluged with complaints about poor service and long wait lines.
Located on a major east-west corridor, Poplar Avenue, that runs from Downtown Memphis to the suburbs, the now-defunct office was one of seven clerk offices in the county.
Its duties include the issuing of vehicle tags, license plates, business permits and marriage licenses. According to the county administration, rent of the office space had not been paid since July.
The owner of the satellite space, Finard Properties, months ago informed the clerk they would not renew the lease for that location but offered her other available space within the shopping center. So far, she has not followed up on the offer.
Halbert’s troubles were aggravated Tuesday (Nov. 14) when the Millington office was closed until further notice. In a social media post, Halbert blamed internet issues for the shutdown. No re-open date has been announced.
Regarding the Poplar Plaza closing, so far, a replacement location hasn’t been found.
“With the closing of Poplar Plaza, there’s been an increased number of complaints in my email box,” said Morrison.
Morris said Halbert brought further negative attention to herself by being conspicuously absent during recent gathering of local state lawmakers.
“…Some of you were there, we heard from some representatives. They had some concerns (about the clerk’s office), as well. The office of the clerk was asked to be present. They did not hear back. So, there was concern from our state legislators, as well,” added Morrison.
Only one commissioner, Mickel Lowery, pushed back on Morrison request. He questioned the process.
“To the sponsor, I’m with you, but is this customary… I guess if there’s an investigation, to give us an update on the process of the investigation, or what’s being done?” pondered Mickell Lowery.
Commissioners voted 11-0-1, despite a clear answer from Morrison.
Although the political response has been swift, the exit from the shopping center was long anticipated.
The lease with Finard Properties ran out in June. An adjacent business’ plans an expansion into space. In the months before the exit, the Clerk’s Office received numerous warnings about the imminent closure. They went unanswered.
The Clerk’s Office was given an automatic three-month extension in June. Despite a September deadline, they stayed for another month. A “notice of surrender” was sent on Oct. 11.
“Kindly remit these monies immediately,” the Finard notice says of the past due rent. “Please be advised that this Notice of Expiration/Notice of Termination of Lease does not relieve Tenant of the obligation to pay rent and other charges for all periods of Tenant’s occupancy,” it read.
Halbert held a press conference the day after the closure, on Nov. 9, calling the backlog in rent “trivial,” saying rent at all office locations are up to date.
Prior to the closure, Halbert said she had found a replacement space at a nearby business. However, the deal fell through after the property lacked the needed square footage.
In addition to the void at Poplar Plaza, Halbert’s problems were compounded when Shelby County Trustee Regina Newman revealed Halbert’s office’s continued failure to submit on-time monthly revenue reports.
The revenue, which is partly derived from the county’s wheel tax, funds Shelby County’s seven school systems.
It also is earmarked to pay the county’s share, $350 million, of the $750 million Regional One Health Campus, along with new high schools in Cordova and Frayser.
The county clerk is one of many elected officials or heads of county divisions that are required to submit the reports. The money automatically flows into a central business account at the end of every business day.
However, the lack of on-time reports complicates tracking revenue. It becomes more pronounced in the fall months, when revenues are thinning before the next infusion of property taxes begins in February.
Halbert has defended her performance, chalking it up to due diligence and wanting to account for “every penny.”
In the past, Halbert has complained to Tennessee State Comptroller’s Office about the automatic money transfer process. However, no irregularities were found.