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Circuit clerk candidates slug it out

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By Damon Lawrence

Circuit court clerk candidate Sarah Stewart didn’t get a chance to respond at a forum in which opponent Marty Miles took a shot at her.

“Ms. Stewart, I’d be crazy not to say it, she’s probably walked in that office about two or three times in her life,” Miles said during his closing comments at Tuesday’s candidate forum in Oak Ridge.

Stewart gave her closing before Miles and didn’t have a chance to answer the allegation.

She did address it afterward, saying she was at the office several times a week.

“I think it was very tacky, the approach that Marty Miles took when this forum should be about the issues that involve the circuit court clerk’s office,” she said.

Stewart said she’s been in the office many times because of her job with United Community Bank.

“I house the county accounts at my job, so I’m there usually two or three times a week on different matters,” she said. “Now I’ve not been in there for the reasons Marty has with his past, but as far as a business standpoint, I have been in that office on numerous occasions.”

Stewart, Miles and Ann Goldston face each other in the clerk’s race. All three participated in the forum hosted by the League of Women Voters at the Oak Ridge campus of Roane State Community College. The candidates discussed several issues, including cross-training office workers.

“We are not a cross-trained office,” said Goldston, who is a deputy clerk in the office now. “If someone’s gone to lunch or vacation or anything, it’s a disservice to the public, our attorneys and their staffs.”

The clerk oversees the Circuit, Criminal, General Sessions and Juvenile courts and their records. Miles said lack of cross-training can shutdown the system at times.

“This past week, we had a juvenile court clerk that was out and went on vacation,” he said. “Therefore, the whole juvenile court section, it shutdown completely.”

“An attorney calls to file a petition, it can’t be done,” Miles added. “It’s impossible because nobody knows how to do one particular job in that office, and I feel like that’s ridiculous.”

Stewart agreed.

“You shouldn’t have to call over there or need something, and have to wait because someone’s out of the office or on vacation,” she said. “Everyone should know how to do each other’s job.”

Miles and Stewart said they’re not happy with the phone situation at the clerk’s office.

“I’ve worked in the juvenile court for 17 years,” Miles said. “If I need to get a hold of that office, I have to get up out of my office, walk across the street and go over there because nobody’s going to answer the phone. That’s got to be addressed.”

Stewart said improving “phone etiquette” is one of her goals.

“You can call over there and you will never get an answer,” she said. “The taxpayers, the citizens of Roane County, that’s who we’re serving, so if we’re not answering the phone, then how are we meeting their needs?”

Goldston said she would like to have a clerk whose main job would be data entry and answering the phone.

“I think that would make sure we get a live person when we call,” she said.

Early voting is underway and runs through Aug. 2. Election Day is Aug. 7.

The salary budgeted for the clerk’s job in 2014-15 is $76,313.

Current Circuit Court Clerk Kim Nelson defended her office, calling the staff “excellent” and diligent.

“I’m suspicious when someone makes a claim using the words ‘never’ and ‘always,’” she said. “Clearly, anyone that would make such a claim has spent very little time in our offices. My deputy clerks work very hard and do an admirable job keeping up with the heavy volume of phone calls and window customers.”

Nelson is not seeking re-election. She will take over as public defender of the 9th Judicial District on Sept. 1.