Monday, February 1, 2010

January Quorum Court Meeting Report

The Quorum Court meeting on Thursday, 1/21/2010, proved to be quite the show. All of the contentious issues on the agenda were discussed and debated in front of a large crowd of Lonoke County voters. None of these issues--the alleged "sweetheart land deal", the missing money in the Sheriff's office, and the "double-dipping" of two county elected officials--were actually resolved, but voters were at least allowed to hear from those involved.

The most heated discussion centered around the issue of the proposed ordinance to allow Lonoke County Judge Charlie Troutman to purchase a small tract of land from District 3 Justice of the Peace Larry Odom. As previously reported, Judge Troutman and JP Odom had agreed upon a price and the judge was seeking the required permission of the Court to purchase the property for Lonoke County.

Before any motion to bring the ordinance to the floor, Judge Troutman gave an impassioned defense of his, and Odom's, actions in the matter at hand. Expressing disbelief that the issue had drawn such bad publicity, Troutman explained the land purchase was nothing more than an improvement project that would benefit citizens of the county and make the intersection of Highways 67/167 and 5 much safer. He referred to Arkansas Highway Department documents and county records of sales of similar property to refute any claims that his offer to Odom was out of line. Wrapping up his remarks on the issue, he addressed District 13 JP Mark Edwards who sent the email that drew the public's attention to the proposed deal. Troutman asked, "Where the Hell do you get the right to call me corrupt?"

Odom offered to abstain when Troutman asked for a motion to bring the ordinance to the floor. The Judge requested Odom not abstain and Edwards made the motion. It was seconded and the fireworks started again when Odom opened the debate with a long statement defending his actions in the deal.

Odom informed the Court he'd served this county for 20 years, and had never been called corrupt. He stated that he'd purchased the property involved for his stepchildren and didn't want to sell. Odom said his wife didn't want to sell the property either, but that he'd talked her into it for the good of the county. After the deal became public and the uproar ensued, he said he and his wife were angered. Stating he would no longer consider Troutman's offer of $60,000 for the property, but would take the appraised value--if it came in more or less, he would sell the land for the appraised value. Odom said he was offended because he had "tried to help, and got kicked in the damn mouth."

After Odom's address, Edwards acknowledged that something does need to be done at the intersection and that things may have been better handled had he confronted Troutman and Odom with his concerns before sending the email. Edwards then turned to a line of questioning regarding his concerns that Amendment 55, Act 742 of 1977 had not been properly followed in this instance.

In particular, section 14-14-1202 "Ethics for county government officers and employees" states:

(3) The officer or employee may not use his or her office, the influence created by his or her official position, or information gained by virtue of his or her position to advance his or her individual personal economic interest or that of an immediate member of his or her family or an associate, other than advancing strictly incidental benefits as may accrue to any of them from the enactment or administration of law affecting the public generally.

In this same section of the amendment, county officers are defined to include "all elected county and township officers." And a few paragraphs following this definition we see the following paragraph:

(c)(1) Rules of Conduct. No officer or employee of county government shall: (A)(i) Be interested, either directly or indirectly, in any contract or transaction made, authorized, or entered into on behalf of the county or an entity created by the county, or accept or receive any property, money, or other valuable thing for his or her use or benefit on account of, connected with, or growing out of any contract or transaction of a county.

Though the preceding paragraphs seem to imply such a deal as that previously reached by Troutman and Odom violate Amendment 55, an exception can be made as we see a little further into section 14-14-1202:

(2)(A)(i) If the quorum court determines that it is in the best interest of the county, the quorum court may by ordinance permit the county to purchase goods or services directly or indirectly from quorum court members, county officers, or county employees due to unusual circumstances.
(ii) The ordinance permitting the purchases must specifically define the unusual circumstances under which the purchases are allowed and the limitations of the authority.

And this appears to be where the difference of opinion originated that led to the fireworks involving this deal. This deal had been in the works for months, and Edwards believed the Quorum Court should have been made aware of it, and had the opportunity to deliberate the pros and cons long before. Troutman and Odom believed placing the ordinance on the agenda a month in advance was sufficient notice.

The second most contentious item on the agenda was the "double dipping" of two county elected officials that recently made the news. Lonoke County Treasurer Karol Depreist and Assessor Jerry Adams are now drawing their full salary along with their retirement. Though a recent Attorney General's opinion indicates the practice may violate state law, the two county officials continued to perform their duties without drawing pay for a period of 90 days.

An attorney general’s opinion on drawing retirement while in office raises the possibility of charges of abuse of office, abuse of public trust, theft of public benefits, falsifying a business record, and tampering with a public record. --Cabot Star Herald

Edwards and District 6 Justice of the Peace Alexis Malham grilled Depriest's and Adams' attorney on the matter. The attorney, Denise Hoggard, also represents other "double-dippers" across the state. Hoggard insisted the two had complied with the letter of the law. But Edwards and Malham referenced the APERS application for retirement benefits and Amendment 55 to insist vacancies had existed in the Treasurer's and Assessor's offices. If true, state law requires the Quorum Court be notified, declare a vacancy, and appoint an interim official to fill the vacancy.

Section 14-14-1308 "Vacancy in Office"

A county, county quorum court district, or township office shall be considered vacant if any one (1) of the following conditions exists:
(4) The incumbent resigns;

Though Hoggard disagreed, the APERS application and the AG opinion seem to indicate resignation is a precondition of retirement. Therefore, the Court should have been notified, a vacancy declared, and replacements appointed for the two retiring officials.

14-14-1309 "Declaration of Vacancy"

The quorum court of each county shall declare a county, county quorum court district, or township office vacant where conditions of vacancy exist as demonstrated in the following manner:
(2) Upon determination by a quorum court that a condition of vacancy exists in all other causes not governed by failure to be commissioned or finding of judicial
proceedings. Such determination by a quorum court shall be conducted through the process of resolution as prescribed by law if the resolution shall have been published prior to the meeting date in which the resolution is to be considered by the court.

14-14-1310 "Filling vacancies in elective offices"

COUNTY ELECTIVE OFFICES. Vacancies in all county elective offices shall be filled by the county quorum court through the process of resolution as prescribed by law.

Though Edwards and Malham continued to press the issue, District 7 JP Adam Sims suggested the Court await an investigation by the Legislative Audit Division to make a determination on the matter. Edwards made a motion to declare a vacancy for the Treasurer's office and Malham seconded. However, no vote was taken and the Court moved on to other business.

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