By Joel Phelps
What started with jovial remarks about hopes of a quick meeting to return home for the evening of Valentine’s Day turned tense quickly and became an hour-long meeting as some Clark County justices fired off questions they had about the transparency of a 1/2-cent sales tax fund.
Up for discussion was the second of three readings of an ordinance establishing guidelines on how the Economic Development Corp. of Clark County could use monies collected from the voter-passed tax, the total of which is forecast to be in the ballpark of $34 million over the span of its 15-year lifetime. The drafted ordinance was sponsored by several justices of the peace, but the outspoken skeptics once again voiced their concerns at Monday’s meeting.
With a motion and second to send the ordinance to its third and final reading at March’s meeting, discussion was opened and included first a prepared statement from Justice Jenna Scott:
“In the election process there were two promises that were made repeatedly — that this tax would not exclude money available to minority-owned businesses and there would be accountability for the use of the funds and the accountability would be the responsibility of the Quorum Court. While this ordinance does not state that minority-owned business would be given priority, it does allow the opportunity to apply, which they have not had in the past.
“On accountability, this proposed ordinance states the EDCCC shall notify the quorum court of any modifications with these rules no later than 30 days. How can the Quorum Court be responsible for accountability if the EDCCC can make changes to the rules without the approval of the Quorum Court first?”
Referring to an ordinance she proposed in December that would allow the court to oversee the use of the funds, she tabled it at the request of County Attorney Todd Turner “until legal questions could be answered about the legislation that governs this tax. Two months later, this morning, we were notified that we received that opinion. While I trust counselor Turner, it concerns me that I was asked to table my ordinance, but this EDCCC ordinance was being pushed through at the same time. I don’t know if this is a conflict of interest for [Turner] to represent both the Quorum Court and the EDCCC, but it does cause me to question that.
“According to the opinion we received today, the Economic Development Act of 2017 does not apply and does not provide any of the accountability that many of us were hoping for. So we, the Quorum Court, are responsible for establishing the rules and guidelines. It was also discussed during the meetings to promote the tax that the amount payable for services, which has been provided up to this point by the [Arkadelphia] Alliance, would be reduced from 30 percent to 25 percent. This has not yet been addressed through an ordinance.
“We have a responsibility to our voters to make sure the promises made to them are held. Voters are paying attention. If you allow this ordinance to move forward, you are communicating to the voters that those promises did not matter. Until we can show the voters that we will hold the EDCCC accountable and there will be some enforceable guidelines, I will vote no on any ordinance or any spending of these tax dollars.”
Justice Tom Calhoon retorted: “Are we not voting on exactly what was approved by the voters? Not just promises that were outside that vote, but just what was in that vote.”
“That’s my understanding,” said County Judge Troy Tucker.
With others on the agenda scheduled to speak about the tax, Justice B.J. Johns suggested the court allow them to go first before proceeding with a vote on the reading. Tucker discouraged that, noting Roberts Rules of Order would have to be suspended. “We do have a motion on the floor,” Tucker said. “It’s kind of important that we follow the rules.”
Justice Albert Neal noted that for the past two decades his fellow Quorum Court members elected him as a delegate to Arkansas county government meetings. “During that time I learned that the Quorum Court is the keeper of all county funds,” said Neal. “I feel that the Quorum Court is in charge of money, and for us to allow another entity [to use it] as they please, I think that’s just not what the Quorum Court should do.”
Justice Austin King asked for clarification on the 30-day modification clause. Calhoon, sitting at the same table next to King, conferred momentarily before Tucker asked if he’d gotten his answer. Addressing the full court, Tucker continued: “I don’t see why the EDCCC would have any issue whatsoever. I mean, they’re going to inform the court if the rules are modified in any form or fashion, or should.” The judge then asked for a vote, which carried 8-3 with justices Johns, Neal and Scott dissenting.
After quick work was made of other agenda items, the Rev. Johnny Harris was given five minutes to address the court about the EDCCC. Harris, who had been to several recent meetings of the court and EDCCC and had spoken publicly at those meetings, thanked the court for not suspending the rules and adopting the ordinance at Monday’s meeting. Had the court done that, he noted, the EDCCC application process would be the next topic of potentially heated discussion. “Unless you know what’s on that application, you cannot vote intelligently on it,” Harris said.
“The Quorum Court has a big responsibility on them. I’m glad we’re looking at it, making sure we’ve got all our ducks in a row, because $34 million over the next 15 years is quite a bit of money to have to deal with.” Harris closed his comments by urging officials from both the EDCCC and county to be transparent, and to ascertain that job retention remains a top priority in the application process.
Next, Alliance chair Wesley Kluck requested the court to release funds it previously blocked until the guidelines were set by ordinance.
“I’m here to ask the court to consider the release of funding to cover the Alliance contract,” Kluck pleaded. Noting the reduction agreement from 30 percent to 25 percent gross revenue, Kluck said the Alliance needs its funding in order to resume various research projects, utilities and day-to-day expenses such as salaries. With the search on for a new CEO, Kluck argued that it’s difficult to recruit a potential candidate when the budget is not known.
Tucker promptly asked for a motion to that effect, and got one from Calhoon (second from Justice Ricky Arnold). Johns inquired whether Kluck’s request was specifically for the Alliance portion of the funding. Kluck affirmed that it was.
Addressing Kluck, Scott said, “So, if we are not funding the EDCCC and allowing them to [receive] their portion of the tax, I don’t see the point of funding the Alliance. We have asked questions about the Freedom of Information Act in the past and were told it does not apply to the Alliance … That concerns me because you are still funded by tax dollars, and at one point we asked repeatedly for financials and we did finally get some financials. But it shouldn’t be a battle for us to get financial information on how our tax dollars are being spent.
“I still think there are a lot of questions and feel the Freedom of Information should apply to those dollars. We need guidelines in place to make sure that happens.”
Attempting to move the meeting along, the judge reiterated that Kluck’s request to continue funding the Alliance was because “they’re in the process of trying to hire a new CEO of the Alliance, and it’s hard to do that if you don’t know if you can even pay him.”
Calhoon asked, “We as the Quorum Court can stop that funding at any point?”
“You have complete control,” Tucker replied.
Calhoon said, “We have people to serve in a capacity to hire someone and to negotiate industrial development, which can’t be fully disclosed based on the agreement that we’ve made with a potential prospect.”
Referring to Scott’s claim that “minorities/Africans” were previously not allowed to participate, Calhoon added: “I don’t think that’s true.”
Scott began to rebut, but was stopped when Tucker interrupted: “You’ve had your turn,” he said, yielding the floor to Justice Vanilla Hannah.
Hannah asked what would happen if the court voted against releasing the funds. Kluck said that, eventually, there would be no money to pay employees or utilities. “We’re not asking for frivolous things,” he said.
Scott then replied: “I’m not saying you’re asking for frivolous things, but I do believe that we need to show the voters what they’ve asked for. They were repeatedly told that the Quorum Court would be responsible for the accountability and that we would establish the guidelines. I just don’t think we can do that if it says that you can change those guidelines so long as you let us know within 30 days. I don’t think it’s appropriate to fund y’all until we’ve got some good guidelines in place. I tried to provide some good guidelines and I was asked to table my motion, but yours has been allowed to go forward, and it does not provide to the accountability.”
Kluck responded: “I’m not the EDCCC. You’re addressing me. We don’t do any of the guidelines. What you’re saying is inappropriate. I’m not the EDCCC, I’m the Alliance. Also, you made a statement that we did not provide you with financials. I’m personally the one that gave them to you. … The reason I think you were having trouble is [because of] an employee who is no longer with us, so that hopefully was the cause of that.”
Scott admitted that Kluck was the one who did answer the inquiry.
With no further discussion, the motion carried 8-3 with the same justices dissenting.
Finally, EDCCC chairman Kevin Jester spoke.
“What bothers me more than anything is an accusation of a lack of transparency of the EDCCC,” Jester said. “We’re a public organization. We have public meetings, open to anyone and all [and held at a] location where there’s ample space.
“Not one single penny has ever been spent by the EDCCC that has not been done in a public forum. Every record of our meetings, of our financials, are open. We bring them to you on a regular basis.
“There seems to be things that are being said that are things that are trying to be hid,” Jester continued. “I would encourage every single one of you to come to our meetings. We are trying to do what is best for the entire county. Some of the things that have been said are simply not true: that minorities couldn’t apply? That’s not a true statement at all! We know that the ordinance that has been passed does give us more latitude, which is what we believe the voters asked for, [and we’re] putting together an application that we hope will incorporate that. And, we will be presenting that to our board in a public meeting.”
Jester also addressed concerns of the EDCCC’s ability to change guidelines with the Quorum Court’s approval. “For almost 15 years now there have been guidelines in place,” he said. “They’ve never been changed.”
Jester added the 15-member volunteer board, appointed by the county judge with the Quorum Court’s approval, does “our very best to make decisions that are in the best interest of the county.”
Johns asked why the ordinance even included language of making changes to the guidelines if changes aren’t commonplace.
“I couldn’t tell you of anything,” Jester replied.
Tucker said, “But it does allow an opportunity, if it is changed, [the Quorum Court is] made aware of it. If they make a change, that line requires [the EDCCC] to bring that change to the court to make you aware of it. That would protect the court.”
Scott retorted that the language should reflect the EDCCC request any changes to the guidelines rather than notifying the court of any changes.
“Is that a suggestion?” Tucker asked, receiving Scott’s affirmation that it was. Tucker responded: “Then I would suggest you contact [the EDCCC] and let them know what your intention is, and I bet they would consider it.”
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