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Halbert presents corrective plan to Commission; files to dismiss petition for ouster

Following numerous delays – including several no-shows – a long-awaited corrective action plan was presented to Shelby County Commissioners from hard-pressed Shelby County Clerk Wanda Halbert during the Wednesday, May 15  Audit Committee meeting.

The item was deferred from May 1.

“Absolutely not. I’m not going anywhere,” said Shelby County Clerk Wanda Halbert in response to the suggestion for her to step aside. (Screen capture)

During the report, Halbert complained about her department being underfunded. Mayor Lee Harris’ administration quickly balked at the suggestion.

“Over the last four years the Clerk has had more resources than she could spend. Financial Reports show the Clerk’s Office didn’t spend $855,245 in 2020, $928,159 in 2021, $1,445,183 in 2022, and $2,288,653 in 2023 totaling just over $5.5 million,” read a statement from the mayor’s office.

It included a caption stating, “Financial reports show Shelby County invests too much, not too little in clerk’s office.”

The report is the result of an audit ordered by Tennessee State Comptroller Jason Mumpower in March. A team was sent to Memphis after Shelby County Trustee Regina Newman pulled inaccurate revenue reports submitted by the clerk’s office.

The set of six recommendations from the state followed.  Determining the value of a $25 wheel tax that was approved in 2023 topped the list.

But aging tools have complicated the various tasks the office performs – including calculating the tax.

“According to our third-party sole-source state system contract team, right now, the wheel tax cannot be separated,” said Halbert. “However, an audit firm did help us put together a platform to identify that wheel tax number. That is one of the challenges we are still working on.”

The tax is currently counted twice. Once, to register the recently passed $25 wheel tax. The next, to note previous rate of $50. The typical vehicle owner pays $75 per year.

“There are so many transactions the clerk’s office performs, it’s just not technologically available – in advance – for a system to be created…they’re just not going to do it,” said Bennie Smith, who oversees IT for the clerk’s office. “There’s not a technological way you can go and add Shelby County twice.”

A “10th of the month” cutoff date also complicates matters. Additional receipted funds routinely come in that require reporting. Yet, Halbert’s office indicated that her office was told to “stop sending” a second report. Only the report due every 10th was wanted. The date was “hard-set” during Halbert’s tenure.

The person who gave the order wasn’t named.

Moreover, the clerk’s office is also required to turn over money within 30 days. It cannot have idle funds.

“If we don’t report that to you, we could be under-reporting. We would rather err on the side of caution,” Halbert said. “We need to document every penny, especially if we are going to have it on an Excel spreadsheet.”

Adopting the state’s BIS system, the ledger would reflect “all those transactions.” It was another recommendation from Mumpower’s team.

Halbert also said the commission and administration should receive a report from any entity touching the financial reporting involving the clerk’s office. Reports that don’t “zero-balance out,” would require an audit. 

Furthermore, she recommended a forensic audit to dig deeper into the accounting practices of previous administrations. She also claimed the administration has prevented her from conducting one.

Commissioner Mick Wright – who has requested Halbert’s resignation several times – asked if her office was still under audit.

“No, because Shelby County intervened and they interrupted the audit,” Halbert said. “I’d like to leave it at that. … The audit was stopped, and not by the Office of the County Clerk.”

He also pressed Halbert on her claims that building codes limit the number of customers allowed in various clerk’s office locations.

“This is the No. 1 complaint that I get is folks having issues with the County Clerk’s office, and it’s virtually every day,” Wright said. 

Despite the prolonged controversies, the embattled clerk does have her defenders on the commission.

“It’s just difficult, because I followed so much of the headlines, which completely sought to just drag you without the proper context for why the performance is not meeting our expectations,” said Britney Thornton. “I would just hope that, to my conservative colleague on the left (gesturing to Wright), your constituents would care about issues beyond the clerk’s office.”

Halbert’s problems don’t end with the Commission. A petition from a special prosecutor investigating her office has also been filed. It seeks her removal from office. The request reflects many of the shortcomings highlighted in the audit of her office.

On Wednesday, May 15, in a press conference and flanked by her legal counsel, Halbert addressed the swirling controversies around her.

She indicated that her attorney would guide her responses due to the ongoing litigation. Halbert’s team emphasized that the motion to dismiss the investigation rests on the argument that no willful misconduct or criminal activity has occurred, only administrative disagreements.

“When we look at the law, what we do is look at what the standards are,” said Halbert’s attorney Darrell O’Neal. “Mere negligence or because you don’t like how I run an office are normally not grounds for removal.”

Halbert heself also responded to her critics, asserting that public office requires adherence to the law, even if it is unpopular.

“It is my job to obey the law. I am sworn under an oath of office, and I’m not going to apologize for operating within the law,” she said.

 

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