Lenoir City Judge salary slashed
Tensions have increased in the months leading up to Thursday’s vote for Lenoir City Judge.
The city sent a letter out in April informing candidates the salary for the position would be decreasing from $75,000 to $7,200 starting with the new term Sept. 1.
The letter indicates a decrease in the performance of the court is leading to Lenoir City Police officers taking cases to Loudon County General Sessions Court.
“We’ve looked at it for quite some time with the performance of the court decreasing, and they just felt that now was the time to do that,” Amber Kelso Scott, city administrator, said. “… Many, many cases are being bound over and at some point we may look at broadening that, but right now we feel that’s the best thing to do.”
The decrease in salary did not hinder three candidates from seeking the position, but the decision was met with questions by incumbent Robin McNabb.
McNabb said no one notified her beforehand and voiced any concerns about how the court is functioning.
“I feel like if there had been a genuine problem with the court or a reason that they thought that decreasing the salary was necessary that the time for discussing that would have been before the city council and the budget committee took up a possible decrease,” McNabb said. “I was taken aback really to find that they were taking such drastic action without ever giving me a heads up that there was a problem.”
She also said wording in the letter suggesting the court wasn’t functioning at full potential was vague, and the reference to officers taking cases to county court was not addressed with her by council, Mayor Tony Aikens or Police Chief Don White.
McNabb said she has “never refused” to hear drug or felony cases if they fell under the criteria for city court.
“No one has ever told me that the city was choosing to send those cases to sessions court instead of having them in my court,” she said. “I certainly believe that officers are not given discretion to make that decision on their own. If there are cases for the department that are going, or drug cases that are going to sessions court instead of staying in city court, then that’s a decision that’s coming from higher up than the individual officer.”
Aikens said while McNabb was never personally notified except by letter, he is willing to sit down and talk with her about the issue.
He suggested the reason behind the decrease at the start of a new term is to be cautious with state laws concerning salary during a judge’s term. He said the overarching reason for the decease is because court is held only one day a week.
“(The) judge, regardless of who that person is, needs to be working more than one day a week in order to draw a salary of $70,000, and we don’t feel like the current judge is putting the time in or has put the time in that she needed to be put in and for the amount of money she’s getting paid or currently getting paid,” Aikens said. “So we took the necessary steps to adjust that salary as we saw fit.”
Former Judge Terry Vann was compensated with a higher salary because he would hold court multiple times a week, Aikens said, adding that the city can recommend extra sessions, but the decision is up to the judge.
Aikens said he would like to see the court have evening and night cases for more accessibility.
“I think city council, and certainly I would recommend, if the court system it’s brought back up to what we believe it should be, and the judge is working and accessible, then I certainly wouldn’t have a problem giving that judge’s salary, regardless of who that person is,” Aikens said. “... But I think we need to be shown that they’re going to do that regardless of ever who’s elected.”
McNabb said Aikens and City Recorder and Treasurer James W. Wilburn III told her early in her term they preferred to solve problems “outside” public view. She said she believes the city recently changed the ordinance regarding the judge position so candidate and City Attorney Gregg Harrison could run for the position despite not living in the city.
Aikens said he doesn’t remember such a conversation with McNabb. He also said the change in the judge position was to align with state law.
Current city regulations allow city judges to live outside the city limits, but they must be a resident of Loudon County. Harrison and candidate Amanda Smith both live in the county. McNabb resides within city limits.
Aikens did contribute $1,000 to Harrison’s campaign. He said he would have considered donating to the other candidates if they asked.