Criminal Court Clerk Gwen Tidwell announced Monday her candidacy for another term, pledging to continue practices that she said have improved the office's effectiveness and efficiency while saving taxpayers money.
A lawyer who was elected to the office in 1994, Ms. Tidwell is a graduate of Hixson High School. She graduated with honors from the University of Tennessee and later from the UT School of Law. She has practiced law in Tennessee and Georgia and previously served as a referee at Hamilton County Juvenile Court. She was appointed clerk of Chattanooga's City Court, serving until she was elected to her current position.
Ms. Tidwell is a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, the Chattanooga and Tennessee bar associations, and three county officials' associations. She is a member of the city-county advisory board for the American Cancer Society and chair of this year's Relay for Life on June 21. The mother of three sons, she lives on Signal Mountain.
She said, "I have an excellent staff of dedicated men and women, and my experience practicing law in these courts and my understanding of the state laws that govern the clerk's office is a major reason for our success. Most people do not realize that we are open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Other than emergency services such as the sheriff's department, fire, and ambulance, I don't think any other county office does that.
"Hamilton County's criminal justice system relies on the valuable professional services of the judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. But the criminal court clerk's office also plays a crucial role.
"State law requires us to maintain vital records on every action taken in every case, beginning with a defendant's indictment and continuing to the final judgment, including all appeals. That is one way the clerk's office protects the rights of the public and defendants. Another way is the easy access to public information and documents in my office. No one has to fill out unnecessary forms and wait a long time for the information they need. In most cases record requests are handled within 24 hours, and often we do it while you wait. This is because we began imaging our documents a long time ago and that allows us to quickly retrieve them for our customers."
Ms. Tidwell said she has taken steps to provide law enforcement and citizens easy access to the operation of the clerk's office. She opened an office adjacent to the Hamilton County jail to assist law enforcement, bail bondsmen, and the general public so that repeated trips back and forth from the jail to the main clerk's office in the Courts Building is no longer necessary.
She said information about active and inactive cases, including judgments rendered by judges or juries, or cases settled by plea agreements, is posted on-line at (http://www.hamiltontn.gov/courts/CriminalClerk). "I believe in open records and their easy availability."
She also pointed to actions taken upon assuming the office to begin collecting unpaid fines and fees from persons convicted of crimes, a problem that she said remains prevalent statewide. Soon after taking office, she said she assigned the equivalent of four-and-one-half staff members to the task of collecting delinquent obligations of persons convicted in Criminal Court and the criminal division of General Sessions Court.
"That department is completely self-supporting," Ms. Tidwell said, "since their salaries, benefits and office supplies are paid by the delinquent fees they collect, not us taxpayers. The fees we collect also pay the salaries of the rest of my staff so that tax dollars do not have to, and these fees also also increase the amount of revenue our office turns in to the county. That helps fund schools, roads, and other county services.
"It's hard to believe, but before I came there were no efforts to collect these amounts ordered by the courts. The Clerk's office depended on appropriations from county general government. I'm happy to say that we have not received an appropriation since 2000.
"As a professional, not a politician, I am grateful that Hamilton County voters have for years entrusted me with the leadership of their office of criminal court clerk. In turn, my promise to Hamilton County citizens is to continue to earn that trust."