Shelby County Clerk Wanda Halbert once again dodged county commissioners’ accountability efforts when a resolution to have her office investigated failed to gain the seven votes needed to start the process.
Only six commissioners voted to adopt the resolution at the commission’s final meeting of their four-year terms Monday (Aug. 29). A new commission, with six new members, takes office Thursday (Sept.1).
The add-on item was the latest chip added to the pot in a battle between frustrated commissioners and Halbert, who recently returned from a Jamaican vacation that coincided with the first week of closures so the office could “catch up” on outstanding services.
“This body at a previous time, actually passed a resolution asking the State of Tennessee to help us deal with the clerk’s office and the disruption of services. We always speak by resolution. That passed and a letter was sent on our behalf to the Governor and to Comptroller (Jason) Mumpower.
“Recently, they have opined that this is a local issue…,” said commissioner Mark Billingsley. “I respect the position of the state to say this is not their issue. If it isn’t their issue, it’s our issue.”
The resolution requested that the Shelby County Attorney engage special counsel to investigate the disruptions in services in the clerk’s office, as well as an alleged breach of fiscal responsibilities and failure to perform duties by Halbert.
It was sponsored by Billingsley and commissioner Brandon Morrison.
Last week, the co-sponsors asked the county’s attorney to explore a possible recall vote. During Monday’s meeting, both also suggested that citizens continue to suffer from undelivered license plates, tags, handicap placards and other parcels.
The backlog began in May and eventually grew into a bottleneck of undelivered items. In late July, the commission bailed the office out with a $540,000 resolution to cover the costs of delivery.
By late July, Halbert said the office had “caught up.”
On the heels of a commission vote asking Mumpower to take over operations, she announced closures for the weeks of Aug. 22-26 and Sept. 19-23 so her office could “catch up” with outstanding services.
Halbert sent out a press release shortly after announcing the closures, saying “all hands are on deck” to catch up on critically outstanding services, most urgently auto dealer packets.
She left for a vacation in Jamaica during the first round of closures.
Last week, Mumpower accused Halbert of being AWOL from her duties.
On Monday, the beleaguered county clerk called the attention to the widely criticized vacation “disrespectful.”
In the past, Halbert has warned of corruption in the clerk’s office, including vanishing records. To guard against reprisals, she invoked the Federal Whistleblowers Act. An audit conducted by Shelby County CAO Harold Collins found no merit to the allegations.
Billingsley said, “All of this would eventually lead, eventually, to ouster proceedings. But again, it brings out someone to evaluate what is happening and why we continue to have disruptions in the clerk’s office. I think we’ve done everything we can do. I’ve been advised this is the next step.”
However, not enough of their fellow commissioners were ready to move forward. Voting in favor of the investigation were David Bradford, Amber Mills, Michael Whaley and Mick Wright, Billingsley and Morrison.
Commissioners Edmund Ford Jr., Eddie Jones, Mickell Lowery and outgoing Chairman Willie Brooks abstained. Commissioner Tami Sawyer was absent.
Before the vote, commissioner Morrison hinted at a possible recall election, by referencing a 180-day hurdle before voters could address the problem themselves. Halbert was recently re-elected on Aug. 4 count general election.
Commission attorney Mary Ingram said the requirement was in the County Charter. She also said Halbert could be ousted for “willing and knowing neglect of duty.”
Morrison said, “The only other possibility to encourage the clerk’s office to function better would be from the people who elected her. We require 15 percent of the people. Of course, I’d love to see the Shelby County Clerk’s office functioning where we could commend her, but that hasn’t happened and then we continue to get these complaints.”
Commissioners also honored several outgoing members including the term limited Reginald Milton, Van Turner Jr., Jones, Brooks and Billingsley. Sawyer opted not to run for re-election. Jones won the race for Probate Court clerk Aug. 4; Brooks won the election for Register of Deeds.
They will be replaced by new commission members Erika Sugarmon, Britney Thornton, Henri Brooks, Shante Avant, Charlie Caswell and Miska Clay-Bibbs.
Incumbents Bradford, Lowery, Wright, Mills, Whaley, Ford Jr., and Morrison will begin their final terms Thursday. The Democrats hold a 9-3 majority.