published Saturday, May 31st, 2014

Attorney general says applicants for clerk and master position can't be secret; Fields is one

Staff Photo by John Rawlston
The Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building is located at the corner of Market Street and Fifth Street.
Staff Photo by John Rawlston The Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building is located at the corner of Market Street and Fifth Street.

THE LIST

Below are the list of attorneys seeking to replace Clerk and Master Lee Akers. Two other candidates withdrew.

• Trevor Atchley

• Robert Davis

• Joseph DeGaetano

• Jim Fields

• Audrey Headrick

• John Higgason

• Kellyann Mulroony Johnson

• Christopher Markel

• Robin Miller

• Richard Pettit

• Ron Powers

• Randall Russell

• Jennifer Smith

• Carmen Ware

• Robert Wilkinson

Hamilton County Commissioner Jim Fields is mum on whether he is seeking to replace Clerk and Master Lee Akers. But the state's attorney general has helped to shed some light on the subject.

Chancellors Frank Brown and Jeffery Atherton unsealed Fields' application and 16 others Friday, after they said Attorney General Robert Cooper Jr. told them he would have a hard time defending their decision to seal public documents.

Fields is the county commissioner for District 2, which includes Signal Mountain and areas along the western border of the county. He was first elected in 2010 and faces no opposition for a second term in the August county election.

Akers will retire when his term ends in August, and Brown and Atherton are currently interviewing to identify his replacement.

For more than a week Fields has declined to comment on whether he was seeking the clerk and master position. Contacted Friday after the applications were unsealed, he said he was asked to apply for the job.

He said if he gets the job, he would continue serving as a commissioner and practice some law.

"The only way I would [take the position] is if I can retain my commission seat, because I have other things I wanted to accomplish in my second term. And I didn't want to do that to my voters. It wouldn't be fair to them," Fields said. "If possible, I would forgo the commission salary, because I wouldn't want to draw from the county general and clerk and master budget."

Akers announced his retirement in December. And another recent attorney general's opinion indicates Fields may have been in the running for a job for some time.

According to an attorney general opinion filed Feb. 26, Cooper said a county commissioner could serve as clerk and master, and a clerk and master could still practice law privately outside Chancery Court.

The request for the opinion was made by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville. Bell said last week a Hamilton County resident asked him to make the inquiry. But he said it was not Fields or any current county official.

But who asked Bell doesn't matter. Fields is the only lawyer on the commission and the only commissioner seeking the job -- so he's the only one who fits the bill.

According to the February attorney general opinion, state law prohibits a person from holding two state positions at the same time -- but commission and clerk and master posts are local.

The opinion also says clerks are prohibited from practicing law "in their own courts, or in any causes commenced, brought to or carried from their courts." But that doesn't bar a clerk and master from practicing in a court outside of Chancery Court.

Fields said Friday he found the same opinion when he researched whether he could take the job.

The chancellors on May 16 declined to release the applications, saying that Akers had the records and they didn't think they were open records under the law.

On the same day, they sealed the documents, saying in a joint order that even if the applications were public records, the privacy of the applicants "outweigh[ed] the public's right to know."

But in a letter to Chattanooga Times Free Press attorneys Friday, the chancellors said the documents would be made available.

"Although our opinion concerning the operative law and analysis differs from that of the attorney general, because the attorney general would defend us in any lawsuit, we have agreed to follow his recommendation to make the applications public," the chancellors wrote in a letter to attorney T. Maxfield Bahner.

The clerk and master is clerk of Chancery Court and writes opinions for the chancellors. It is the only constitutional office in the county whose occupant is appointed by two elected officials rather than elected by the public. According to county budget documents, the job pays $103,795 a year.

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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