published Saturday, June 28th, 2014

Hamilton County Courthouse campaign letter causes kerfuffle

A letter supporting Criminal Court Clerk Gwen Tidwell's re-election may end up marring the 20-year incumbent's campaign.

Copies of the letter, which was signed by a group of more than 60 lawyers, were posted in several areas in the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Courts Building -- a place supposed to be politically neutral.

Tidwell, a Democrat, said Friday she had nothing to do with the signs and told a staffer to take them down as soon as she saw them. But they were back on the wall a day later when TV media arrived, she said.

She said she was grateful for the support from attorneys, but she wished the letter could have been made public somewhere else.

"In the newspaper might have been nice," Tidwell said in a phone interview Friday.

Tidwell's opponent, Republican Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, took issue with the letter for its placement and content.

First, Dean said, the letter shouldn't have been posted in a public building.

But he also rejected the attorneys' claim that the Criminal Court clerk needs to be an attorney.

"Statewide, there's only one clerk in criminal or circuit court who's an attorney. They say it's a 'requisite qualification,'" Dean said.

Dean is not at an attorney but has 27 years' experience in law enforcement and served as on the East Ridge City Council. He was the city's mayor before he took the District 30 House seat he's in now.

Dean also criticized Tidwell, a Democrat, for her running of the office. He said she has been lax in collecting delinquent fees for the court.

"There's $50 million in uncollected delinquent fees. That's disturbing because $50 million would have funded that office for 25 years," he said.

But Tidwell said her office does better with collections than any other criminal clerk office in the state.

"We do collect fees daily. I'm the first clerk [in Hamilton County] to even have made an effort to start collecting money. I started the delinquent collection division," she said. "When you look at who our clientele are, those are people who break the law, they are not Johnny on the spot to pay their fees."

Tidwell could not give an exact amount Friday afternoon for outstanding court fees, but she said the number grows daily -- and there's not much she or Dean or anyone could do about it.

"At any given day we've got 1,500 people in jail, and that's $56 a day that's added to their court cost. That's $84,000 a day," she said.

According to Criminal Court clerk records, the office has collected $1.7 million in delinquent fees from 2010 to 2012. More recent figures were not immediately available Friday.

Hamilton County Election Commissioner Jerry Summers was one of the lawyers who signed the letter in support of Tidwell.

He said Friday he didn't mind publicly supporting Tidwell, but when he saw the letter posted in the courts building, he was furious.

"I don't know who did it, but it was wrong. I took it down myself. It was improper," Summers said. "I was kind of acting in my election commissioner capacity."

Attorney Robin Flores also had his name on the letter.

"I actually signed the original petition, but I didn't have anything to do with putting it on the wall. I had no idea that would be posted in the courthouse," Flores said.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 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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