City & County

JP says committees needed to address jail conditions, DeGray Lake area

This post has been updated to correct the type of facility the Corps had intended to build at the Lakeview Area and to include comments from Clark County Judge Troy Tucker.

By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian

Pay raises, live streaming and the formation of committees to address issues at the jail and DeGray Lake will be the topic of conversation when Clark County justices of the peace convene for what is likely to be an eventful and long February meeting. Here’s a look at the upcoming meeting:

EDCCC report

Shelley Short, CEO of the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance, will deliver the annual report of the Economic Development Corp. of Clark County. 

Black History Month

Under a resolution enacted by the court, county Judge Troy Tucker is expected to proclaim February 2023 as Black History Month in Clark County. The month has been recognized as such in the U.S. since 1976, and the resolution is up for consideration each year at the local level.

Funding for DeGray FD equipment

Another resolution on the table is one that would authorize Tucker to apply for a grant on behalf of the DeGray Volunteer Fire Department. The request is being made to the Arkansas Rural Development Commission to secure $5,684 in state grant funds. The grant, if awarded, would match funds from the county’s general fund to replace equipment for the department. The total funding for the equipment is $11,368.79.

Livestreaming JP meetings

District 2 Justice Michael Ankton, who is among the five newly elected faces on the court, is sponsoring Ordinance 2023-03, which would establish a livestream service of regularly scheduled quorum court meetings to be available to the public.

Michael Ankton

Ankton told The Arkadelphian that his reason for wanting to livestream the meetings is twofold. Broadcasting the public meetings on platforms such as Facebook and the county’s website (which is currently undergoing a revamp) would provide more transparency, and using technology would put Clark County on the same page with modern times. “This is just playing catchup with technology, and we have the resources to make it happen,” Ankton said, noting the City of Arkadelphia has for years used Ouachita Baptist University’s media department to broadcast its city board meetings.

Who would broadcast the meetings, Ankton said, will be up for discussion at the meeting.

If passed, the service would begin in April and continue “unless an unforeseen circumstance prevents the service or unless it is suspended or discontinued” by the court.

Jail and Lakeview committees

Toward the conclusion of January’s quorum court meeting, District 7 Justice Jenna Scott made a motion to form two committees — a Jail Facility Committee and a Lakeview Facility Committee — but Tucker, who presides over quorum court meetings, didn’t acknowledge the motion and said he would consider her proposal.

Asked Wednesday about Scott’s proposal, Tucker told The Southern Standard that he did not hear it as a motion, but rather as a recommendation. Tucker also said that the judge appoints members to committees, but there is no requirement that such committees be filled.

Jenna Scott

In a conversation with The Arkadelphian since that meeting, Scott outlined her reasons for wanting the two committees. Ongoing issues like maintenance and overcrowding need to be addressed, Scott said. “One of the problems is we’re spending money to send our prisoners to other counties because we don’t have the space for them,” Scott said. “It’s not compliant to basic requirements of jail facilities. There are ongoing maintenance issues and we’re spending more on maintenance because it’s old. It needs to be replaced. We’ve got to do something.”

According to Scott, forming a committee of six justices would begin the process of addressing the jail issue. That committee would “investigate the conditions of and make recommendations for” the Clark County Detention Center, Scott’s ordinance notes.

As for the Lakeview Facility Committee, Scott referenced a lease agreement between the county and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Situated on a peninsula south of the Highway 7 Recreation Area, the Lakeview area found itself as the topic of community outcry when, in 2019, the Corps began clearing the property to erect its headquarters. Unpleased with the notion of a large build on a site with nice views of the lake, concerned citizens wanted something more tourist-friendly to be built at such a picturesque location. Concerned citizens held a series of public meetings to protest the construction and the Corps halted the project. But no action has been taken to remedy the desires of the citizens who want a tourist draw at the Lakeview area.

The formation of a five-person committee consisting of justices of the peace, Scott said, would “make recommendations and ensure progress” on the peninsula. Among the recommended facilities to be built there include a visitor’s center (relocating the current one on Skyline Drive), an event venue, a museum, or basic facilities like a pavilion and trails. “It’s a beautiful location,” Scott added. “I would like to see it be something that pulls tourists in. We need to do something about it or [the county] will lose it again.”

However, merely asking for the formation of a committee appears to be political and more complex than what’s on the surface. The procedure to form a committee is a legal issue of who has the power to form one, and there are differing opinions in the legal community. Clark County Attorney Todd Turner points to an opinion from the state attorney general and opines that the county judge has the authority to form committees. Scott disagrees, pointing to a handout she was provided at a 2022 meeting of the Arkansas Association of Counties, where attorney Mike Rainwater advised that quorum courts have control over forming committees, and that county judges appoint the members.

The power struggle over committee formation is not new in Clark County government. Former county Judge Ron Daniell was the target of criticism from justices who wanted to create more committees in addition to the existing Budget and Personnel committees. In 2014 Daniell asked Turner to research the issue, and Turner referenced Arkansas Code 14-14-904(d):

Turner’s opinion has not changed since then. He went on to say in the recent memo that, of the several AG opinions he researched, there was no consensus on opinions. He ultimately rested his case on the statute pictured above, which he said “empowers the County Judge to create committees and determine who would compose those committees. … My opinion continues to be that the discretion to create a particular committee, as well as determining who would serve thereon, rests with the County Judge.”

Pay raises for justices?

Longtime District 4 Justice Albert Neal isn’t giving up on his stance that justices deserve more money for their service on the quorum court. Neal is introducing Ordinance 2023-05, which would provide that the 11 justices earn $300 per regular meeting. Justices currently earn $200 per diem, or per regular meeting, and $50 for committee meetings.

Albert Neal

Neal’s argument is that compensation for justices has not been raised in more than 25 years and that the current per diem rate is “significantly less than the amount” set forth by state law. Neal’s ordinance would also allow justices to receive compensation for one absence per year “due to an emergency or personal reasons.”

Neal’s previous efforts to create discussion on justice raises were struck down in a November meeting, but things could turn in his favor now that there are several new faces on the quorum court.

The meeting is slated for Monday, Feb. 13, 2023, at the Court Complex Building, 419 Clay St., Arkadelphia. The meeting is open to the public.

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