SB 535 defeated in committee

Tuesday, March 28, 2017
Eastern District public officials, Monette Mayor Jerry "Chub" Qualls, Black Oak Mayor Eddie Dunigan, Caraway Mayor Barry Riley, Craigehad County Judge Ed Hill, and Lake City Mayor Jon Milligan. (photo/Nan Snider)

Many residents of Buffalo Island, which makes up the Eastern District of Craighead County, traveled to Little Rock last Tuesday to oppose the passage of Senate Bill 535, which would do away with the county's dual judicial districts.

The two judicial districts of Craighead County include the Jonesboro District (West) and the Lake City District (East), and were created by Acts 1883, No. 61. Senate Bill 535 was sponsored by Senator John Cooper and Representative Ladysmith B. Smith to repeal that law. The bill was passed in the Senate earlier this year and sent to the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, March 21. State Representative Dan Sullivan and Senator Dave Wallace strongly opposed the bill, which was defeated in committee with an almost unanimous vote.

Senator Cooper opened his comments about the bill by saying it was critically important to Craighead County the bill be repealed and that it had been created during days of primitive travel and communications.

State Representative Dan Sullivan, Dsitrict 53

"That may have made sense in those days but not today," Cooper said. "Along with Act 667 of 2003, it provided an advisory election, for a Deputy Sheriff and Deputy Clerk, and put mandates upon the county. This added to the confusion. It called for a Deputy Sheriff and a Court Clerk to be put on the ballot for the Eastern District. It gave the assumptions they were elected for something, when actually it was only a straw poll.

"This legislation has created difficulties in the county. It is dysfunctional government which has led to the belief in the Lake City area, and the individuals who work there, that they are basically equal to the county officials who are their superiors. It has led to insubordination and outright refusal of the employees to perform the policies as instructed. We ask you to clear these shackles, and make the county whole.

"It has morphed into a situation of the tale that is wagging the dog. People in the Lake City office have gotten very lax about preservation and protections to the sensitive areas of their office, and have taped IDs and passwords to their computers. The two districts are to keep two sets of books, and it is unlawful for either district to subsidize the other. Last year the Lake City District took in $332,000 in revenues. Their salaries alone came to $280,000. That only leaves $50,000 for the totality of all the rest. Very likely the Eastern District is being subsidized by as much as $1,000,000 a year. This situation is a likeness of someone putting their hand in someone else's pocket. A bank robber could say the same thing.

State Senator Dave Wallace, District 22

"County officials have come to me asking for help. They cannot perform their jobs legally. This is creating a confrontation within the county that is divisive. Don't get engrossed in by the emotional appeal of this issue. What we have within the Lake City District are a few employees in a cavalier attitude with sensitive information, and subjecting elected officials to insubordination."

Circuit Clerk Candace Edwards spoke for the bill's passage.

"One instance was that we had a new addition to the deputy clerk in Lake City in November 2016," Circuit Clerk Candace Edwards said. "We set up interviews to recommend potential candidates for the job. I was informed that County Judge Hill and his assistant Tony Thomas met with Lake City staff and the position had already been offered to someone. They went behind my back to the judge and he filled that job. If they didn't like my answer they would go over my head to the county judge, and evidentially would go against what I would say. The judge and the quorum court has stood on the law (Act 667 of 2003) that I do not have control of that office."

County Assessor Hannah Towell voiced her approval of SB535.

"I was elected to follow the law," Towell said. "When I had questions about my job, I called for legal counsel, from ASC. I was told that the Craighead issue was too goosey of a situation for them to give me an answer. Most counties can get an answer but we cannot due to this legislation."

Senator Wallace spoke in opposition to the bill.

"Do you hear that noise (knocking on table)? That is the sound of the government saying I am here to help you," Wallace said. "Those people here today are from the Eastern District, which we call Buffalo Island. They don't usually come out to LR (Little Rock), they trust us to make the laws of the state, their judge, and quorum court to handle the county issues, and their mayors and city council to handle their city issues. The six mayors here today oppose passage of the bill. This can be summed up in six words, local issue, local control, local government. We are not here to legislate passwords on a computer, or insubordination, those are best solved on the local level. That's why we have county judge, quorum court and mayors. These people came here today because they are very worried. They have had a courthouse that has worked for over 130 years. It is a way of life, and it works. This is not reason enough for us at the state level to get involved."

E. Ray Hackworth, retired baker, of Jonesboro, asked the committee to vote in favor of the bill.

"The Act 667 of 2003 has created a non-binding voting program in the county where people believe they are elected, when they are not, and created problems with record keeping, proper control of money and flow of work. Our system is broken, because people don't understand the meaning of judicial districts and county seats. The county seat is in Jonesboro. This current bizarre system has created a non-cooperative culture within our county. We want to keep turmoil out of our county."

"All the mayors here today oppose this bill," said Lake City Mayor Jon Milligan. "This action is over the top and unnecessary. This can be handled on a local level."

Representative Dan Sullivan spoke against passage of the bill.

"The people of the Eastern District work together. These communities have done things together for hundreds of years. A local legislative audit says the people in Eastern District, in Lake City, are working well within their scope and not picking anyone's pockets. It saddens me that we are coming down here to resolve issues like this. Harmony and unity are family. Unity is singing the same song, harmony is the blending of different instruments and voices making it pleasant to hear. You can't have harmony with people like you. You can have conformity, but not harmony. Harmony is embracing the differences to bring together a sweet song. Tension is required, different levels in tension. We want to get things right. This is a local issue. Differences can create harmony of discord. Our goal should be to provide harmony. Let this go back to our local area and let us solve it."

County Judge Ed Hill spoke against passage.

"The Lake City Courthouse has been very functional for many years," Hill said. "There has never been a legislative audit that has come back bad about anything there. Lake City has provided good service for many years and we hope to continue that. We are here to provide a service for the public. That's why we are here as public servants to provide service to them, not at our convenience, but the taxpayers' convenience. We are here to serve the public and that is what is done in Lake City. It appears here we are trying to fix something that is not broken.

Lynn Mangrum Williams, of Jonesboro spoke against passage.

"I want us to take this back to our communities and work it out, as reasonable people can," Williams said. "I live in the Western District, but have had the privilege of having lived in the Eastern District as well, and I have been pleased with the functionality in both districts. I see no reason for this."

Senator Cooper announced his plans to retry his bill and propose an amendment to the House Judiciary Committee this week.

Craighead County officials attending the House Judiciary Committee hearing included Monette Mayor Chub Qualls, Black Oak Mayor Eddie Dunigan, Caraway Mayor Barry Riley, Brookland Mayor Kenneth Jones, Bay Mayor Darrell Kirby, Eastern District Deputy Sheriff Garland Tipton and Quorum Court Justice Terry Couch.

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