Shelby County Clerk Wanda Halbert reelected — despite long lines, controversy

Incumbent Shelby County Clerk Wanda Halbert, a longtime politician, won her reelection after months of controversy surrounding backlogged license plates and long lines at her offices.

She defeated Republican Jeff Jacobs, who formerly worked in both the clerk’s and trustee’s offices and currently works for Bartlett City Schools, and independent Harold Smith, a former teacher and principal in the Memphis-Shelby County Schools.

Halbert, a Democrat, was elected as county clerk in 2018. She had previously been elected to the Memphis City Council, serving there from 2007-2015. And before that, she was on the Memphis Board of Education from 2000 through 2007.

For the past few months, the clerk’s office has dealt with a backlog of thousands of license plates, the plates sitting in the clerk’s office rather than being mailed out to customers.

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In late June, Halbert reported that there were 8,600 plates still to be mailed out. The clerk’s office had earlier said the backlog was due to a shortage of cash for postage and a high demand for the state’s new license plates, but also balked when the Shelby County Commission moved to approve $540,000 in funding for postage.

The clerk’s office also reported that since May, 35,000 customers experienced a backlog in getting their plates, according to the resolution passed Monday.

The clerk’s office currently has a staffing shortage, with more than 30 vacant positions — yet has more than 1,000 active applications pending the office’s review to fill the vacancies, according to a resolution considered by the Shelby County Commission in July.

And, in fiscal year 2021, the office “underspent $886,049 in personnel budget funds.”

Customers have also complained of long lines, often stretching outside the clerk’s offices in the summer heat, for people waiting for plate renewals and other services.

Last month, members of the Shelby County Commission considered whether they might take a vote of “no confidence” in Halbert’s office, even asking the state to take over the administrative function of license plate distribution. Eventually, the commission decided to delay that vote until after the election.

Halbert responded to that proposed resolution with an email saying she was being “publicly shamed to cover up long standing practices that may appear to bump against the law.”

“You have denied me the ability and the right as a new official to be made whole and clean-up said outstanding matters,” she said in a letter to commissioners earlier this week, announcing that she was invoking the Federal Whistleblowers Act, which protects employees from being retaliated against for reporting wrongdoing.

Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.

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