"I do." It was done. As Steve Stamson promised to uphold the duties of the Juvenile Court clerk, his marriage to the office was sealed, thus finalizing the divorce from the same position of former Clerk Shep Wilbun. The $94,805-a-year position, which became a surprisingly significant race in the recent Shelby County elections, may be moving out of the limelight, returning to its former background role. Unlike his predecessor, Stamson says he's satisfied with that.
From Relative Obscurity
Created in 1909, the Juvenile Court clerk's office has traditionally been responsible for carrying out court orders, including collecting child support and other court fees, dispersing those fees, and ensuring court security. For the past 39 years, the court has been presided over by Judge Kenneth Turner, who supervised the four clerks who have served under him. The clerk's primary job is administrative: He is keeper of the court's records.
Until 1988, when the Tennessee code was changed to allow for election of all inferior court clerks, the Juvenile Court judge appointed that court's clerk. At that time, C.R. "Bob" Martin held the clerk's position. He had been appointed by Judge Turner after the retirement of former Clerk William Glenn Fulmer. Martin was later elected to office with the approval and support of Judge Turner.
Things were quiet in the Juvenile Court clerk's office until November 30, 2000, when Martin called it quits before the end of his term, leaving the unfilled position in the hands of the Shelby County Commission. Shelby County law requires the commission to fill interim county government positions.
"When [Martin] retired, it was up to the county commission, on which Mr. Wilbun served at that time, to appoint an interim clerk," said Turner. "They pulled a dirty deal. They did a little vote-swapping and came up with not the most desirable situation, by any means."
During the commission's December 18, 2000, meeting, the commissioners appointed one of their own, S.A. "Shep" Wilbun Jr., to the Juvenile Court clerk position.
"[Wheeling and dealing] is the case in almost any vote. That's nothing new," said Commissioner Julian Bolton last Friday. "On the commission, we have a delicate balance of power, and in the political game, when the balance is delicate, it can go one way or the other. In order to have some assurance of an outcome, sometimes, you have to make concessions."
Here's how the "wheeling and dealing" went: In order to guarantee Wilbun the position, the Democratic commissioners made a deal with Republican commissioner Clair VanderSchaaf to vote for Tom Moss, VanderSchaaf's choice (and a fellow developer) to fill Mark Norris' vacant District 4, Position 2 commission seat. The other Republican commissioners wanted Shelby County Election Commission member David Lillard. Moss won the appointment seven to five, getting all six Democratic votes, with the one Republican vote necessary to win coming from VanderSchaaf. In return, VanderSchaaf agreed to vote with the Democratic commissioners to appoint Wilbun Juvenile Court clerk.
"There's nothing new about it. It happens in politics. It happens in almost any controversial or high-stakes vote," said Bolton. "There's nothing inappropriate about it. Wilbun wanted to serve [in a] full-time [capacity]. Apparently, the majority of the commission felt the same. It's the way politics has worked since prehistoric times. Of course, there's a lot more written about it now, but it hasn't changed, and you can still maintain integrity by working with your other elected officials. You have to work with people who are, one day, adverse to you and, the next day, they're with you. How does that happen? It happens by negotiation, concession, and conciliation. To get together like we did in the case of Wilbun is better than to beat up on each other and have to take people out at the podium and cross-examine them to change somebody's vote."
But not all commissioners were so readily accepting of the deal. Former Commissioner Buck Wellford did not approve of the decision then and does not approve of it now. Transcripts show that, during the original meeting, Wellford questioned Moss' intentions before his appointment to the commission, citing his relationship with controversial developer Rusty Hyneman. Wellford also alleged that Moss was in on the deal from the beginning, guaranteeing commissioners his vote for Wilbun.
Nevertheless, Wilbun was appointed to fill the clerk vacancy, beating out then-Chief Deputy Court Clerk Stamson. Again, VanderSchaaf was the swing vote, siding with Democratic commissioners and Tom Moss, backing Wilbun.
Into the Limelight
From the outset, Wilbun's Juvenile Court clerk tenure was markedly different in tone from his predecessors'. With a history of public service, including the Memphis City Council, the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, and the Memphis Area Minority Contractors Association, Wilbun was not used to staying in the background.
"It has been my objective from the beginning to move the Juvenile Court clerk's office to being one of a force in this community," he said in an interview prior to the election. "[It should be] one that participates in finding a solution to the problems of violence against our youth, to preventing babies from being murdered in the streets, to assisting those who are already providing programs to give kids something to do. I believe the statutory requirements of the office are a floor, not a ceiling, and that this clerk can, ought [to], and should be a force in preventing juvenile crime in this community."
The son of noted judge S.A. Wilbun Sr., Wilbun grew up in Memphis, attending Hamilton High School. "I was taught that the most important things were to have integrity, have a good name, and try to do right," he said. "If you exert yourself to the fullest and use what God has given you, good things will happen."
Good things did happen for Wilbun. He earned a bachelor's degree in city planning and sociology from Dartmouth College and a master's degree in architecture from MIT. He went on to found Wilbun Enterprises, an urban- and facilities-planning company, and began to make a name for himself in the political arena. He ran an unsuccessful but spirited campaign for city mayor in 1999.
Wilbun's appointment to Juvenile Court clerk gave him what he wanted: a full-time government office. But to keep the job, Wilbun would have to face some obstacles. And some of his actions came back to haunt him.
"It's essential that the communication be kept up between the judge and clerk of the court because the clerk's job is to keep the records of the court," said Judge Turner. "[The clerk's] position is strictly administrative. He doesn't make policy; he carries out the orders of the court."
Wilbun quickly demonstrated that he did not agree with Turner's job description. When making his pitch for the job to the county commission in December 2000, Wilbun spoke of "being an example to those youth who need help, representing a [positive] image to young people who get in trouble and come before the court, becoming part of the team that would deal with young people in the community." Even then, Wilbun was countered by Stamson, who said, "[T]he Juvenile Court clerk's office does not deal directly with the youth. We deal with other matters of the court because this is the clerk's office."
But after being appointed, Wilbun actively pursued his agenda. He restructured the clerk's office, made several new appointments, remodeled the offices, and scaled back staff. Wilbun also announced that his staff had found almost $3 million in unclaimed and undeliverable funds, mostly child-support payments that never made it to the intended recipients due to inaccurate contact information or because the intended party had not been identified.
The funds became a rallying point for Wilbun, as he publicly questioned the actions of his predecessor. "I am ashamed of Bob Martin for keeping money from needy babies and mothers," said Wilbun in a July press conference. "How many families were destroyed because the $3 million did not get to the families that needed it? ... All because Bob Martin did not care. ... Bob Martin should be ashamed of himself for not performing his fiduciary responsibilities."
Wilbun established his Funds for Families program with the unclaimed funds and, using various city and county databases, began finding intended recipients and disbursing the money. By July, Wilbun claimed that almost $300,000 of the money had been delivered and the remaining funds had been placed in interest-bearing accounts, something that had not been done by Martin.
Stamson, who was a part of the Martin administration, maintained that no mismanagement had occurred. "These funds accumulated over a period of 27 years. During Mr. Martin's tenure, we were collecting $50 million to $60 million each year and distributing child-support payments," he said. "This was a very small percentage of the work that we were doing. We were managing to get $60 million to the right places every year, and when those unidentifiable payments came back, we made every effort to find those people. But you can only spend so much time and money trying to find somebody that doesn't want to be found." Nevertheless, Wilbun involved the FBI in an investigation into the funds.
In addition to the Funds for Families program, Wilbun created Decide to Provide, a program intended to give delinquent child-support-paying fathers the opportunity to arrange new payment plans without fear of incarceration. Again, he was criticized for going beyond his duties as the Juvenile Court clerk.
"A Cloud Of Doubt"
While Wilbun was busy establishing new programs, one of his staff members, Darrell Catron, was accused of misusing a county credit card and paying a female employee $1,500 when she complained of sexual harassment. A grand-jury investigation into the office's expenditures was launched.
"If you are an administrator, you have people that you put your trust in that sometimes let you down. I don't think that's unusual," said Wilbun. "We did have some problems with some employees at a high level, and they had to be fired. I accepted some recommendations from friends, and they let me down by sending me someone that would do these kinds of things."
Throughout the inquiry, Wilbun maintained his innocence, citing his initial request for the investigation. He also held fast to his belief that someone within Stamson's campaign was responsible for the leads in the grand-jury investigation in order to create "a cloud of doubt" around him. As the election neared, he called on local African-American churches for support and said the probe was an "all-out effort to stop the first African-American Juvenile Court clerk."
Stamson denied any involvement in the investigation.
"He plundered and pillaged the clerk's office," said Judge Turner. "He came in there and brought his cronies in. It was very unpleasant and very hard on the personnel. Mr. Wilbun had to face the voters in August, and in their infinite wisdom, the voters of Shelby County removed him from office."
Stamson won the August election with 49 percent of the vote, just 2 percent more than Wilbun. Stamson's Juvenile Court career had come full circle, from chief deputy under Martin to clerk under Turner. "[In December 2000], I felt like I was the best-qualified candidate for the job, but the county commission saw fit to appoint someone other than myself," he said. "I wasn't bitter. I figured the right way to do it was to let the voters decide, and that's what I did."
Stamson is no stranger to Shelby County politics. He served as manager of the business-tax division of the county clerk's office, is a longtime Republican Party activist, and even cochaired Lamar Alexander's 1995 presidential campaign. Most recently, Stamson held the position of chief deputy clerk under General Sessions Court clerk Chris Turner.
Just two weeks into his term, Stamson is already on the way to returning the office to its original format. "I only expect three things from my employees: Come to work, be on time, and do your job. The clerk's position is administrative. All those other programs are someone else's to do," he said.
Stamson has chosen former mayoral executive Ron Banks as his chief deputy clerk and is investigating open contracts remaining from Wilbun's term. While he "didn't expect to miss a lick," the transition of administrations was met with some initial resistance. Stamson never received a congratulatory phone call from Wilbun. A letter sent to the former clerk requesting inventory records was not answered for several days and with only a portion of the information. And the traditional walk-through of the office with the former clerk was not performed. But Stamson is taking it all in stride. "I don't have anything personal against Mr. Wilbun at all," he said. "It was a political race. I think the voters were looking for someone to run a conservative, efficient office and do the best job for the taxpayers."
Although Stamson beat Wilbun, both candidates' stated philosophies were based on the same principle: serving the citizens of Shelby County. Through years of working behind the scenes, Stamson understood the role of clerk, while Wilbun was determined to institute his own policies. "He was doing his own thing, serving his own ends. He was here about a year and a half, and I never laid eyes on him but about two or three times," said Judge Turner. "He didn't understand how crucial it was for the clerk and judge to communicate."
Wilbun never thought he would lose the election, but he says he did learn from the process. "What I'll take from this is not to put as much stock in the recommendations of friends in the future. I'll do more of my own ascertainments of the preparedness of the individuals I bring to work with me," he said.
And while Stamson sees no place for policy-making in the clerk's office, he does plan to continue the Funds for Families program if the money remains in the court's jurisdiction. "We'll do the best we can to get the money out," he said. "We just won't use money on publicity like was done before."
A Good Soldier Lost
Wilbun's claims of political involvement in the grand-jury investigation seem more justified now, since other high-level county employees, including former county mayor Jim Rout's assistant Tom Jones, were found to have misused county-issued credit cards. Newly elected county mayor A C Wharton has since collected all credit cards and issued a temporary moratorium on their use.
"It's unfortunate that this issue of integrity, of credit-card use by someone other than the clerk, came up at a time that basically cost him his election," said Commissioner Bolton. "And then, later, it's revealed that it's almost a matter of course. Unfortunately, [Wilbun] wasn't able to withstand that political firestorm. But we've lost a good servant, and I regret it. I don't think that a person who has served our community for as long as Mr. Wilbun has deserves that kind of public treatment, but, like in war, good soldiers are lost, and that's the circumstance here."
Since his defeat, Wilbun hasn't granted any interviews or given any indication of his future plans. "He's a bright man," said Bolton. "He's got a lot of good will in this community, and I'm sure he'll rebound. I'm sure he's going to step back, clear his head, look ahead for about a month, and I think things will open up for him."
"Wilbun didn't understand the role of the clerk, but Stamson does, and also, he's a friend," said Judge Turner. "He is a man of great integrity and ability and very much an honorable gentleman who we know we can, and will, work with."
With the negative publicity the clerk's office has received lately, Shelby County voters are no doubt hoping that, for at least the next four years, Turner's assessment is true. After all, thousands of Shelby County children are counting on it.