published Thursday, July 10th, 2014

Hamilton County's Criminal Court Clerk race heated

IMPORTANT DATES

• July 31: Last day to request an absentee ballot

• July 18-Aug. 2: Early voting

• Aug. 7: State primary and county general election

The Hamilton County Criminal Court Clerk's post is not a political job. The clerk makes no policy, wields no real power and largely performs administrative work.

Despite all that, it's been one of the most hotly contested positions this election cycle.

Republican state Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, hopes to come home from Nashville and supplant 20-year Democratic incumbent Gwen Tidwell as the clerk.

And he's made no bones about why he's doing it. He says Tidwell is mismanaging the office, allowing delinquent fees to accumulate and shirking duty to the taxpayers.

But Tidwell says she's the first clerk to even attempt to collect overdue court costs, and she's saved taxpayers $6.3 million by fully funding her office through fees for the past 15 years.

When criminal defendants are sentenced, they owe court fees and other fines.

Often, defendants have no money to pay court costs and then no way of paying them if they go to jail. And being in jail adds $56 a day to the tab. Sometimes they also leave the state, or die, and their debts go delinquent.

Dean has criticized Tidwell for the more than $50 million in uncollected fees over her 20-year career.

"That could run that office for 25 years, and she's just recently got a company to start collecting," Dean said.

But Tidwell says she's collecting all the fees she can through her delinquent collections division, which she started when she took office. And she contracted with a debt collection service in December to go after fees that are older than a year and have not been paid.

In a written statement Monday, Tidwell said she's the first Criminal Court clerk in the county's history to fully fund the office from revenue.

In the past, the clerk's office received an average of $420,000 a year from the county general fund to cover salaries.

But since 2000, "not a single tax dollar has been used to pay salaries in the office," Tidwell said.

In addition to collecting court fees, the Criminal Court clerk also keeps records for the county's criminal courts.

The $103,795 annual salary for the post is paid by the state.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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