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Jamaica vacation fuels storm over County Clerk

Wanda Halbert

With outrage growing over Shelby County Clerk Wanda Halbert’s “scheduled” Jamaican vacation, a pair of Shelby County commissioners asked the county’s attorney on Tuesday (Aug. 23) to explore a possible recall vote.

Repeating his summerlong refrain that the “citizens deserve better,” commissioner Mark Billingsley added that “it’s an insult to injury” that she was enjoying a Caribbean getaway “while the clerk’s office is in crisis.”

He was joined by commissioner Mick Wright, who cautioned Halbert that if she couldn’t fulfill her duties, “she should step down and let someone else lead that office.”

The move is the latest in a twist-and-turn-filled season that also featured thousands of undelivered license plates and tags, and handicap placards, Halbert’s re-election and an eventual commission request for state intervention.

The vacation stunned many, however. Halbert assured politicians and citizens alike that the office had caught up with the backlog in tags and plates that began in May and had ended in late July. 

On Aug. 15, she announced the total closure of the clerk’s main and satellite offices this week (Aug. 22-26) and Sept. 19-23, so her office can “catch up” with outstanding services, like auto dealer packets. 

Beyond issuing new license plates and tags,  the clerk’s office also handles vehicle title transfers, collects liquor by the drink taxes, issues notary public commissions, sells business licenses and issues marriage licenses.

Days later, she was off to the island during the first round of closure dates. Halbert, who has defended the holiday as already scheduled, said she would return on Wednesday, Aug. 24.

Newly re-elected Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, in a statement, said, “We share the public’s disappointment that Clerk Halbert has chosen to close public offices that serve our residents and leave the country. 

“Our Administration has consistently asked that Clerk Halbert expand her hours of operation in order to clear the backlog issues and deliver essential services to Shelby County residents. We all need Clerk Halbert to do the job that she was elected to do.” 

Halbert’s trip also was heavily criticized by Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower, who declared Halbert “AWOL” from her office. Mumpower also described the closures as “unusual.”

The comptroller was asked to take over operations in the office with the Aug. 8 commission resolution. Both Billingsley, resolution a co-sponsor, and Wright sided with the 7-2-4 majority in favor of the request. 

The item was proposed following months of undelivered tags piling up. Halbert blamed the foul-up on a lack of funding. To get registered vehicles back on the road, the commission bailed out the County Clerk’s office to the tune of $540,000. 

She also warned of corruption, including claims of being made a “scapegoat” for practices that “bump up against the law,” like vanishing records. Halbert’s also invoked the Federal Whistleblowers Act to guard against reprisals. 

An audit conducted by Shelby County CAO Harold Collins found no merit to the claims. Mayor Lee Harris and County Commissioners also are skeptical, if not dismissive.

One problem the office does have, however, is a shortfall in workers. Last year, it underspent on personnel by $866,048. Recently, there were as many as 30 openings, with 1,000 applications under consideration.

Nevertheless, voters opted to stick with the incumbent on Aug. 4 and gave Halbert another turn at the office. Her second four-year term begins Sept. 1.

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