published Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

East Ridge City Manager Tim Gobble's actions taint court case, attorneys claim

Two attorneys with a client facing burglary charges in East Ridge want the case dismissed, saying recent disputes between City Manager Tim Gobble and the court clerk's office may have interfered with the court's neutrality.

Gobble was subpoenaed to the court Tuesday by defense attorneys Chris Dixon and Cris Helton, who said that Gobble's disciplinary action against the clerk's office this month raised questions about administrative interference in the courts.

"My client has the right to have his case reviewed by a neutral and detached magistrate clerk," said Dixon. "The actions of Mr. Gobble show a strong possibility that these are not neutral and detached -- there may be some aspect of fear involved because his hands are in the police and the clerk's office."

East Ridge City Attorney John Anderson is trying to keep Gobble from having to testify in the case, and a special judge has taken the matter under advisement, saying it is an issue that has been hovering over Hamilton County courts for some time.

Earlier this month, Gobble suspended Court Clerk JoAnn Thomas and formally reprimanded two other court employees for "insubordination" after he said they failed to tell him about court scheduling changes in connection with a Sept. 3 robbery case in which his daughter was the victim.

Gobble then publicly vowed in media interviews and on the city's Facebook to conduct a "full review" of administrative procedures of the clerk's office.

"For that we do not apologize," he wrote on the East Ridge Facebook page on Sept. 8. "The public safety and welfare require it and we will not fail."

He also has launched two investigations into the clerk's office, which he said are being handled by police officers.

Dixon and Helton are representing Jon Graham, a man charged with aggravated burglary who is not connected with Gobble's daughter's case. Still, the attorneys argued, Gobble's recent actions have made it unclear whether the clerk is separate from administrative and law enforcement influence.

Because East Ridge's judge is in court only once a week, the court clerk and deputy clerks sign all arrest warrants. Graham's warrant was signed Sept. 8, in the middle of the drama at city hall.

Prosecutor Darren Gibson said the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office also has some concern on whether the conflict could compromise future cases.

"Obviously, we have a tremendous issue on the validity of our warrants," Gibson said.

Anderson -- who, as the city attorney, technically represents both Gobble and the court clerks -- cited a section of state law he said could exempt Gobble from testifying because of his city manager status.

Special Judge Kevin Wilson said Tuesday he could not determine whether the statute covered criminal cases, but he decided against having Gobble testify in court, saying he needed more time and materials to review the case.

Wilson said he hoped to have the case resolved by Nov. 13 and would try to avoid calling either Gobble or Thomas as witnesses before then.

The case boils down to whether Gobble has power to oversee -- and discipline -- court clerks, which he has repeatedly said he does. East Ridge's charter gives him authority over all city personnel, but state law says that the judge authorizes all firing, hiring and discipline inside the court.

"This issue has never come before a court [in Hamilton County]," Wilson said. "It's been sort of thunderclouds in the distance for a while."

Though attorneys with the Municipal Technical Advisory Service at the University of Tennessee have not yet issued a legal opinion on the East Ridge matter, Helton pointed to a 2000 opinion that directly addressed the same question in another city. In that case, MTAS ruled that the judge has the power to appoint, discipline or remove court clerks.

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