Eastern District elections

Friday, March 22, 2002

Lesia Couch, Eastern District deptuty clerk, and Dewaine Malone, Eastern District deputy sheriff, both expressed surprise when they learned that the two Eastern District positions they hold may not be on the ballot.

Both had recently announced their plans to seek re-election. Both are serving their first two-year term that will end Dec. 31, 2002.

"I was not aware that it was in question until I read it in the newspaper," Couch said. "I am disappointed. Right now I am just waiting for someone to tell us something. I have enjoyed serving in this position and hope to continue."

Malone agreed that it was a surprise.

"I made my announcement and had plans to run. Right now we have to go by what they say. For 119 years the people of the Eastern District have had a voice in it," Malone said. "Whoever runs this office will be appointed by the sheriff."

An Arkansas attorney general's opinion released last week may end the two non-binding straw votes that have been on Eastern District ballots since 1883. It was reported that the members of the Craighead County Election Commission had agreed earlier that if the opinion of the attorney general's office stated that the two races were not legal, no names would appear on the ballot for the positions this year.

The state law differentiates between employees and elected officials, the opinion read, and deputy sheriffs are clearly employees rather than elected officials.

County Clerk Nancy Nelms said that according to the election commissioners, unless legislature is passed, these two positions will not appear on the ballot.

"I knew that during the last election questions arose and the commissioners said they would check into it," Nelms said. "I had not thought much about it since that time."

The General Assembly approved legislation in the 1800's establishing the Eastern District as a separate judicial district or, in effect, Lake City as a second county seat.

For decades a "gentleman's agreement" has been in effect on the election of a deputy sheriff and deputy clerk for the Eastern District. The elected sheriff is expected to commission the winner of the straw vote for deputy and the circuit and county clerks to commission the winner of the clerk's race.

Candidates for the two positions have paid filing fees to the political party of their choice for years.

Craighead County Judge Dale Haas said the straw votes have been a tradition with deep meaning to district residents.

Haas lives in the Eastern District and was a former elected deputy sheriff.

"I still live there and it makes me sick to see that taken away from the Eastern District. I don't see what it hurt. If the general assembly needed to to do something about it, I don't see why they did not do it before. We knew it was a straw vote and it was respected as that. It did not take anything away from anyone. I was an elected deputy myself. It gives the people a choice. If possible, I want to see it fixed.

"I will always support the Eastern District and the courthouse in Lake City," Haas said.

"The Attorney General's opinion and the decision of the Craighead County Election Commission to terminate the Eastern District elections for deputy sheriff and clerk sadden me, although the law gave them no choice," said Rep. Jerry Allison.

"I know that the people of the Eastern District have always had pride in their independence. I support the people of the Eastern District's right to vote on their own officials and voice their opinions on those who serve them on a local level. The people of the Eastern District have a strong sense of community, and these elections contribute to that.

"The media accounts suggest that this concern was raised by the election commission two years ago. As for me and the other legislators from Craighead County that I have talked to, no one told us that this was a problem before the last legislative session. If constitutional legislation could have been drafted to fix this problem, we would have worked to support it. I will still support such legislation if it is introduced in the next session," Allison said.

Representative Allison will not serve in the next Legislature, but is currently a candidate for Craighead County Judge.

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