published Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Hamilton commissioner Mitch McClure eyes magistrates as contract end nears

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Hamilton County Commissioner Mitch McClure is taking a hard look at the magistrates' program as he prepares for the expiration of the four magistrates' contract Oct. 31.

McClure, chairman of the commission's Security and Corrections Committee, received a packet of information this week that includes years of commission minutes and contract process documents about the program. He said he plans to call a meeting soon on the matter.

Among other things, magistrates set bonds and issue warrants. A magistrate is on duty 24 hours a day on weekends and as necessary during the week to ensure the county can issue timely warrants and bonds.

The packet included two documents from County Attorney Rheubin Taylor to commissioners.

One recommended that commissioners hold an annual public hearing to analyze the effectiveness of the magistrate system, also known as the judicial commissioner system.

"From previous conversations with various individuals that have had some involvement with our system, I am sure that there are those that would welcome an opportunity to share their observations and present their concerns," Taylor wrote. Though the letter is dated Sept. 15, it's not clear if the letter is new or is a copy of an earlier letter. The magistrate system dates from 1999.

Another memo addressed the types of questions commissioners should not ask magistrate applicants in interviews. Taylor advised commissioners against asking about applicants' marital status, whether they have children or about religious affiliation.

Full-time magistrates make an annual salary of $59,363 and the chief magistrate earns an additional $5,000 a year.

The magistrate program has sparked controversy on several occasions. The program is overseen by the commission and, at commissioners' request, the county's General Sessions judges.

A part-time magistrate was fired last year for allegedly making inappropriate comments to an inmate. At the time, the General Sessions judges wrote to then-Commission Chairman Curtis Adams, asking for a determination whether the judges should be involved in the program.

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    Judge Bob Moon listens to a defendant speak Friday in his courtroom. Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press

The request came after Judge Bob Moon made inquiries into allegations against the magistrates at the request of several female county employees, the letter said. At a committee meeting to discuss those allegations, a former commissioner allegedly said Moon "should not have 'stuck his nose in something that he does not run.'"

In April 2010, Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he still wanted the judges to help oversee the program.

Contracts will expire on Oct. 31 for Chief Magistrate Larry Ables and Magistrates Pete Johnson, Yolanda Mitchell and Randall Russell.

In August, Ables and two county commissioners had a heated exchange after Ables discussed concerns about jail staffing with Sheriff Jim Hammond without prior notice to the County Commission's security and Corrections Committee.

At an Aug. 17 meeting, Commissioner Joe Graham told Ables that he should "go through the proper channels" with his concerns.

McClure's committee later examined the issue with Hammond and his staff. Hammond said he made some overtime policy changes to reduce the load on certain jailers who regularly volunteered for double shifts.

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about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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