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Voting Smart in an Unexplored Race

July 29, 2016

If you like your present local government, you can keep it.  Just ignore the current election cycle, or vote for incumbents, and in most races, whoever is in office will stay in office. Be aware, however,  that a “Whatever” or “Whoever” attitude among voters usually results in complacent office holders who have little motivation to do a better job (or even a good one). Not that incumbents can’t be outstanding in their performance. We all know exemplary office holders we don’t want to lose. The key to effective government is in our own hands – we have to care enough to understand each office; what it takes to discharge its duties with merit; hold incumbents accountable for high performance; and vet challengers for their abilities, character, and vision.

 

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Early voting continues through Saturday July 30 at these locations for the August 4, 2016 local election. At stake are the Republican and Democrat primary nominees for the 8th and 9th Congressional District seats and several State House and Senate races. Local races include five Shelby County Schools district commissioners, two judgeships, and the General Sessions Court clerkship. With the exception of the hotly contested 8th Congressional District race, which is receiving wide media attention, few of the races are the kind that compel voters to brief themselves on leading issues and make sure they get to the polls. Many are uncontested – including four of five seats  on the school board – and in others, the incumbents are disproportionately favored over their challengers.

Elections like this are opportunities for voters to focus on a few obscure, unexciting or less familiar elected offices, become better informed, and use the power of their votes to improve government performance. So, instead of producing a full voters guide,  Back in River City decided to focus on just one race – an elective office under-analyzed by local news media and less understood by the electorate. 

The General Sessions Court Clerk is an office with massive responsibilities, one that touches hundreds of thousands of  Shelby County residents each year – far more than any other judicial post. Many voters are uncertain how to vote in this race. They do not have a clear idea of what the office does, how the incumbent is performing, or what a candidate should bring to the table.  Back in River City decided to investigate the actual performance of the office to give a well-informed recommendation.  

We didn’t know we were taking a bite from an elephant.

bite of elephant bw graphic

 

That’s why this post is coming out two weeks late, and less complete than we would like. Consider this Part One of an evolving story on how Memphis government works and how our votes can make it work better.

General Sessions Court Clerk

 

If you already know what the General Sessions Court Clerk does, you might be a reality tv fan.

Tennessee’s General Sessions Courts were created in 1960 to replace the former justice of the peace system. Also known as small claims courts or the courts of first resort  (think Judge Judy or Memphis’ own  Judge Joe Brown – umm, on second thought, better stick with Judge Judy), General Sessions courts try minor civil and criminal cases and preliminary matters in major criminal cases. General Sessions Courts do not impanel juries. They have the power to set bonds and to issue both arrest and search warrants. Each Tennessee County has at least one General Sessions Court. 

 

the peoples court

 

Shelby County’s General Sessions Courts comprise 15 divisions and judges.  Divisions 1-6  hear a host of civil matters including traffic violations (Tennessee Highway Patrol and Sheriff’s Department citations), landlord/tenant conflicts, domestic relations matters, evictions, denials of handgun permits, emergency medical commitments, and actions to recover personal property (including hot checks). Dollar amounts on cases other than recovery of personal property are limited to $25,000 or less.

Criminal Divisions 7-15 handle misdemeanor charges (where the defendant has waived the right to a grand jury investigation or trial by jury) and preliminary hearings for felony cases. Division 7 serves as Veterans Court. Division 8 is Shelby County’s Drug Court. Division 10 is set aside for Domestic Violence cases. Division 14 is  Environmental Court, which handles zoning, planning, and other cases related to a cleaner, safer Shelby County.

The Office of the General Sessions Court Clerk (OGSCC) keeps records, assigns cases, and handles funds for all 15 courts.  The salary for our General Sessions Court Clerk was  $117,453  in FY2015. In recent history, at least, the post has been considered a political plum with multiple perquisites – status; influence; and a flock of  good-paying, secure jobs to be awarded in a city where government positions are a direct path to the middle class for many born into poverty.

The office of Shelby County General Sessions Court Clerk has been sought and held by colorful, powerful, and influential people. Former State Senator John Ford served for one term (1992-1996). Eleven years later, back in the State Senate, he was convicted of multiple counts of  bribery in the FBI’s Tennessee Waltz sting  and  imprisoned for 66 months.  Current General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Chris Turner, a former member of the Tennessee House of Representatives,  served three terms as GSC Clerk (1996-2008) before losing his fourth term bid to  Otis Jackson. He was elected a GS Criminal Judge in 2010. Mr. Jackson, an early 1980’s basketball star at then Memphis State, was suspended  in 2011 for 60 days with pay after being  indicted by a grand jury for official misconduct. Mr. Jackson was acquitted after agreeing to a one-year pretrial diversion. The grand jury found that Clerk Jackson “engaged in the coercion for political purposes of employees or used his position for political purposes.”

 

ed stanton jr poster

Current officeholder Ed Stanton, Jr. (father of U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton, III) had over 25 years experience in the OGSCC (not as Clerk) prior to his 2011 appointment. He headed the civil division of the OGSCC during John Ford’s term. He ran for a full four-year term in 2012, winning the Democratic primary narrowly against former County Commissioner Sidney Chism.

While political connections and opportunities have long been integral components of the job in Shelby County, the checkered history of some officeholders should give voters pause to consider the kind of GSC Clerk candidate who will do the best job. Effective administration of such manifold responsibilities requires specific levels of  education, training,  experience, and managerial skills.

So, how do we know whether to vote for the incumbent, or if one of the challengers would be more effective in office?

question button

Q. What objective measures are  used  to measure the performance of an incumbent GSC Clerk? 

A. Accountability in the OGSCC is generally limited to re-electibility. There is not much formal oversight beyond external audits. (Back in River City is attempting to learn how often external audits are conducted and to obtain copies of recent audits.)

The 15 division judges do have the ability to remove a GSC Clerk.Twelve  of  15 General Sessions judges voted to suspend Clerk Otis Jackson for 60 days with pay in 2011 following the grand jury charges.  

Q. How should a GSC Clerk’s performance be evaluated?

A. Back in River City believes that every elected office holder should be held to specific standards of efficiency, accuracy, and resource management. The GSC Clerk should uphold high standards of transparency and accessibility to the public, providing taxpayers and other citizens useful information about the Courts and the OGSCC, including its accomplishments, performance measurement, and goals. The staff should provide courteous and efficient service to those who use the courts (attorneys, litigants and defendants) and to those who pay for them (that would be us taxpayers). The GSC Clerk should also demonstrate high performance in the selection, training, development and efficient use of employees; and prudent application of scarce resources.

Q. How well is our current GSC Clerk performing?

A.  This is where Back in River City’s journey became circuitous, frustrating, and slow as mud in the Mighty Mississippi. It is disturbingly difficult to find useful information about the current or past operations of the OGSCC.  Unlike that of  Nashville Metro,  Shelby County’s OGSCC does not publish an annual report providing measures of accountability to the public. Our official OGSCC website is not only short on basic metrics, but contains confusing, apparently erroneous, information. 

 

Accessibility: C-

 

Back in River City attempted to contact  Clerk Stanton for assistance.   The email link on OGSCC’s official website, however, does not function, and the Clerk’s email is not public.  Phone numbers are provided on the website for the civil and criminal divisions, but not for general questions of the Clerk’s office.

We ultimately sent our questions to Harvey Kennedy,  Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) for Shelby County, and requested he forward them to Clerk Stanton. Mr. Kennedy did so promptly.  After one week (July 26), we received courteous responses from the OGSCC ‘s CAO. Our follow-up questions received a prompt but disappointing response that answers would be provided by August 3rd, the day before Election Day —  too late to be of much help to Back in River City followers. 

 

Accuracy: C-

 

During his 2012 campaign, Clerk Stanton promised to restore  “the public’s trust” in the OGSCC; to “serve the citizens of Shelby County by operating the Clerk’s office in a transparent, effective and fiscally sound manner. . . [including] implementing safeguards and protocols to ensure that all funds maintained by the office, including its multi-million dollar budget, are accounted for and always utilized in the best interest of the taxpayers . . .[and to] Provide outstanding customer service . . . .”

He also promised to “enhance and modernize the office’s electronic technology capabilities by implementing e-filing and wireless capabilities, to provide a more efficient and user-friendly manner to serve the citizens.”

With an expense budget in the $8 million range, revenues between $9 – $10 million, and hundreds of thousands of court-related tasks completed each year, accuracy is essential to the job of General Sessions Court Clerk. Time constraints did not permit Back in River City to  interview attorneys and others who interact regularly with the OGSCC. We had to rely on published facts; primarily, approved Shelby County budget documents,  Consolidated Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs), and archived news reports.These sources gave an incomplete picture and raised numerous questions about missing reports,  conflicting statements, and statistical discrepancies.

Back in River City obtained a copy of a 2010 Shelby County audit of the OGSCC. The audit revealed a history of systematic accounting problems and management deficiencies dating back to John Ford’s tenure as General Sessions Court Clerk (1992-1996) and extending through the terms of Chris Turner (1996-2008)  and Otis Jackson (2008-2011). It was unclear whether or not problems were found in areas previously managed by Ed Stanton. Clerk Stanton did have access to the audit when he began his pro tempore appointment to GSC Clerk in 2011, and should have addressed the issues immediately. Back in River City is working to document what corrective measures Clerk Stanton has since taken to ensure accuracy and efficiency in the OGSCC and to “restore the public’s trust” per his 2012 campaign promise.

While campaigning for his first elected term in 2012, Clerk Stanton cited his prior experience as a competitive strength over his challengers. He also announced, just weeks before the general election, that the OGSCC would be refunding an estimated $300,000 in overpaid GS court fees and fines to some 2,400 individuals.  Local media touted the news, and Clerk Stanton won the election handily. Here’s an excerpt from a campaign interview:

Based on an internal audit I commissioned, my finance team recently identified nearly $300,000 in overpayments that were made unknowingly by citizens to the Clerk’s officepolitispeak over the past 12 years. Instead of these funds being remitted to the State of Tennessee, I swiftly instituted a process for the 2,400 individuals who overpaid the Clerk’s Office to reclaim these funds

 

Official documents obtained by Back in River City recorded the actual amount of  overpayments as $227,745.63. (We have requested documentation of the number of overcharged citizens.) The overpayments were discovered in the 2010 audit conducted before  Clerk Stanton held the office; not, as he claimed, one that he authorized. The “swift process” he refers to was not so swift, and not as direct-to-citizen as implied.  

The Tennessee Treasury Department, Department of Unclaimed Property, acknowledged acceptance of a check on May 28, 2013 for a $227,745.63 check signed by Clerk Stanton on May 13, 2013  –  nearly a year after he announced the process was in place. The overpayments had not been reimbursed previously to citizens because the OGSCC did not have current or accurate addresses for the parties owed. Unclaimed funds such as these are required to be escheated to the State’s Unclaimed Property division. Once a year, that agency publishes names of all persons owed escheated funds relinquished from banks, businesses or government agencies in newspapers across the State.  Most citizens due refunds from the OGSCC would be unaware they had overpaid. To obtain the money due them, they would have to file a claim after seeing the published notification of Unclaimed Funds in their name.

 

The home page for the General Sessions Courts civil divisions reports handling over 65,000 new cases each year. The home page for the criminal divisions states that over 100,000 criminal cases are handled each year, for a combined civil-criminal case total of 165,000.

Elsewhere on the website, however (see “Statistics”),   graphs appear showing 95,012 as the  “Yearly Total” of 2015 “Events” (a term used elsewhere on the site as an alias for cases) and an average of 100,000  “Events” annually for the period 2010-2015. These graphs are of little to no value to taxpayers, because the have no legend or links to define “Events.” The graph totals do not correspond with  audited data appearing on the CAFR for for 2015. The CAFR reports 62,251 civil cases filed in General Sessions courts in 2015, and 193,293 criminal cases.

Shelby County budgeting procedures require departments to provide “Service Level Measurements” or task/paperwork volumes, which allow comparison from year to year.  The OGSCC’s approved budget estimated the following services to be rendered in  FY2016:

Civil Divisions

  •  78,854  Civil Lawsuits – Leading Actions
  •  55,454   Complete Filings
  •    5,593    Emergency Mental Commitment Cases
  •  44,015   Non-Leading Civil Actions
  • 388,247 Non-Leading Processes
  •  39,991   Post-Judgment Procedures (i.e., Garnishments)

No combination of these numbers adds up to the “Cases” or “Events” quoted on the OGSCC web site. If staff cannot accurately report its volume of work to the public on its own website, it raises questions about accuracy elsewhere in the department where money is on the line.

Criminal Divisions

  • 133,963  Arraignments
  •   9,192    Drivers License Recovery Program
  •  49,208  Escrow Skip Sessions
  •  46,306 Misdemeanor Citations
  •  54,436 Traffic Tickets

Again, it is impossible to reconcile these numbers with what appears on the criminal division web page. Back in River City has requested clarification.

In some cases, data provided to Back in River City by the CAO of OGSCC did not match what was reported in CAFRs or published in Shelby County Approved Budget documents. We are continuing to work with the CAO to determine the reason for the discrepancies and ascertain the correct statistics.  As an example, the OGSCC has a reported FTE (full-time equivalent employees) complement of 149 employees in its existing (FY 2017) approved budget. Back in River City was told that there are currently 160 employees. We have asked for clarification.

Transparency: Incomplete but Improving. 

Management Skill and Use of Resources: ??

 

Back in River City attempted to calculate the net cost to taxpayers of the OGSCC, beginning with a base year of FY 2008, the last full budget year under former Clerk Chris Turner. We also analyzed OGSCC Revenues from General Funds (not Grant Funds) and Personnel Expense based on CAFR data. We attempted to carry the analysis through FY 2015, the last year for which audited results are available, in order to evaluate performance for various GSC Clerks during the eight-year period.

In FY 2012, during Otis Jackson’s last year, Shelby County’s Finance Department stopped publishing separate budgets for Court Clerks in the Criminal, Chancery,  Probate, and General Sessions Courts. The separate Judges accounts and Clerk’s Office accounts were rolled up into one account on the CAFR and Approved Budget documents. This accounting change (which, for some reason, did not apply to Juvenile Court for three years) prevented performance analysis of the Court Clerks by the Shelby County Mayor, County Commissioners, news media, or taxpayers unless they requested and obtained internal budget documents from the Clerks’ offices. Separate Clerks’ office budgets were restored to the Shelby County Approved Budget in FY 2017.

Back in River City has requested the missing documents from OGSCC to complete our analysis, and will publish our findings later. Regrettably for voters, this will occur after the August 4, 2016 election. What we do know, however, is that  OGSCC  revenues from various fees, fines, and court costs are higher than expenses of running the office. In other words, the OGSCC generates a surplus.  When the expenses and revenues of the various GS Court Judges are included, however, total expenses exceed total revenues.

We know from our preliminary analysis that in the fiscal  year (FY) ending June 30, 2008, the OGSCC earned a surplus of over $2.5 million dollars. Currently, the amount appears to be less than half of that number.  Personnel expenses have risen dramatically, beginning in Otis Jackson’s term, and continue to rise each year. Based on our preliminary numbers, the average cost of salary, fringe benefits and other compensation on a per-employee basis has risen from $33,346 in FY 2008 to nearly $53,000 in FY 2017. These numbers were based on published FTE quotas and may change when we receive more information from the OGSCC.

 

Education and Training: D

 

Clerk Stanton’s extensive prior experience in the OGSCC office is not sufficient in our eyes to recommend him for re-election. He has only been in the GSC Clerk position since 2011. Back in River City has been unable to verify that he has the management skills and accounting expertise to make the deep structural changes called for in the 2010 audit. He lists attendance at the University of Memphis on his Linked-In page (in Criminal Justice),  but apparently did not earn a degree.

 

Ethics: C-

 

An ethics complaint was filed in 2014 against Clerk Stanton by OGSCC CAO William Stovall, who alleged that he was fired after refusing  to make a donation to Clerk Stanton’s campaign fund in 2013. Mr. Stovall was also OGSCC CAO  under former GS Clerk Otis Jackson, who was indicted in 2011 on four counts of pressuring employees for campaign donations and subsequently left the office. Mr. Stovall said in the complaint, according to  FOX 13 News, that other OGSCC employees had been similarly pressured. Fox 13 also quoted him as stating the solicitations were made by an OGSCC colleague, not by Clerk Stanton directly. Back in River City has been unable to learn whether the complaint led to any investigation by the County’s ethics committee. We did find what appeared to be a redacted version of the complaint on the internet.

Earlier this year, a discrimination lawsuit was filed by an OGSCC employee against Shelby County. In the suit, Clerk Stanton was accused of inappropriately touching the employee. The suit was settled out of court in April.

Back in River City’s research on all three candidates in the race included examination of their Campaign Financial Disclosure Statements. For the period July 1, 2015 through January 15, 2016, Clerk Stanton reported only two expenditures, including a $250 contribution to Hillary for America. While such contributions are not illegal, Back in River City  considers it unethical for a candidate to to divert campaign funds contributed to him to  a candidate for another office. A better choice would have been for Clerk Stanton to use his personal funds to make a contribution to the presidential candidate of his choice.

Fifty-four percent of respondents in a Memphis & Shelby County  Bar Association member said that Clerk Stanton is “best qualified” of the three candidates in the race. We disagree. Overall, Back in River City’s analysis to date leads us to believe that Memphis needs more skills and less politics in the elected office of General Sessions Court Clerk. 

Clerk Stanton, a party-loyal Democrat,  is opposed in the current election by Republican Richard Morton and William Chism, Jr., who is running as an independent.

 

William Chism, Jr.

William chism poster

 

William Chism, Jr. is a native Memphian and Whitehaven High School graduate who grew up in a family business, Chism Trail Supermarket. He attended Shelby State Community College, but does not claim he earned a degree.  Since 2007 he has been principal of Chism Process Service. He ran unsuccessfully for Probate Court Clerk in 2014 and for City Court Clerk in 2015. Mr. Chism does not have a campaign website. His campaign Facebook page contains almost no background information on him.

Commercial Appeal (CA) reporters found in their 2015 investigation of City Court Clerk candidates that Mr. Chism filed five bankruptcies during the period 1995-2004.  At that time, he owed $13,318 to First Tennessee Bank from a judgment filed in 2013. Mr. Chism appealed a 2013 First Tennessee  breach of contract suit by a pauper’s oath, according to an unofficial document from Shelby County files available on the internet.

While 10 of 844 attorneys responding to the Memphis Bar Association’s Candidate Qualifications Poll voted Mr. Chism as more qualified than Clerk Stanton or Richard Morton, Back in River City respectfully finds Mr. Chism unqualified to serve as Shelby County General Sessions Court Clerk.

 

Richard Morton

richard morton photo

 

Richard Morton is presently Head of Accounting for the Shelby County Probate Court. The Probate Court handles conservatorships, corrections to birth certificates, guardianships, name changes, wills and estates, and judicial hospitalization under our mental health laws. Its expense budget in FY 2015 was $1,140,887.

Mr. Morton earned a degree from the University of Memphis. His campaign website lays out a specific platform to improve the performance of the court, including:

Collections: Go back to a more proactive collections policy that makes the criminals pay their court cost, instead of their tax paying neighbors who chose to do their part and stay out of trouble.
Technology: Put a new focus on technological improvement. Pushing advancements and updates to be implemented sooner will not only save in operational costs, but will also save in the capital improvement budget.
Streamlining management: Management in General Sessions is too big, the office can easily get by with fewer high paid managers if they are encouraged to get out of their offices and work with the people who work for them. This will bring about a higher quality of work for the public as well.

Mr. Morton is an active Republican and board member for the Tennessee Board of Communication Disorders and Sciences. He received 22% of the votes in the Memphis Bar Association poll for Most Qualified Candidate for GSC Clerk. Back in River City found no hint of impropriety or lack of performance associated with Mr. Morton. In our opinion, he is by far the most impressive of the three candidates for General Sessions Court Clerk.

 

better than before

 

How do we raise our standards for Metropolitan Memphis’ elected leaders? How do we realize greater transparency and accountability in government? The answer is:

We raise up and elect better qualified candidates.  

 

In this race, Back in River City believes Richard Morton to be that candidate.

 

Back in River City will continue to provide updates as we receive additional insights and information about the OGSCC and its performance. These updates will continue past the more coming soonelection. Why? Because what we have learned  – and will continue to learn – is important to all Shelby County voters. Individually, court clerk offices (Circuit, Probate, Criminal, Chancery, Juvenile, General Sessions) are considered too small by traditional news media for the level of  performance analysis required for voters to make a truly informed, smart decision. Bar polls and recommendations from political parties and special interest groups can be shaped by factors that have nothing to do with which candidate would do the best job.  As a result, voters seldom know if they made a smart choice. To make a better Memphis, we need more informed voters making smart choices.

 

Correction: Thanks to Ken Welch for catching our boo-boo identifying Sidney Chism as a current Shelby County Commissioner in the first issuance of this post (now corrected). Although OOPSthe shelbycountytn.gov website still shows him as County Commissioner, he is now employed in the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department. George Chism is the current County Commissioner. (Now, will someone please correct the Shelby County government website?)

 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2016 3:41 pm

    Very well done and thank you…I had no clue about this race!

    ________________________________

  2. August 4, 2016 8:21 am

    Thank you so much! I can’t imagine finding the time to dig that deeply into a morass like this. I’m sure you will be the catalyst that makes them clean house. Thank you. I miss the judge page, though. I have no way of knowing anything about them either. Do you know any of them off hand, without the supporting research?

    • August 4, 2016 2:39 pm

      We appreciate your kind comments, Eleanor, and your support. As for the judges, we support Jim Newsom for Chancery and Valerie Smith for Circuit judge. As a rule, we recommend voting to Replace judges in elections where your options are only Retain or Replace. We wrote about that in our extensive judicial voting guide. Hope this helps you feel more confident in your voting.

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