City & County

Creation of jail, lake committees fails

By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian

A plea wasn’t enough to persuade all of her quorum court colleagues that more committees are needed in county government.

Justice Jenna Scott (R-District 7) on Monday introduced an ordinance that would have formed two committees. One would have been responsible for recommending improvements to the county jail, and the other would have given input on the Lakeview area at DeGray Lake. A motion to read the ordinance failed in a 5-6 vote.

“If we appoint 20 committees and the judge don’t appoint anybody to serve on them, what do we have?”

— Albert Neal, justice of the peace

“I have talked to a lot of people, and these are two issues that people feel very strongly about it,” Scott told fellow justices.

Regarding the jail committee, Justice B.J. Johns (R-District 8) asked Scott if she’d consulted with Sheriff Jason Watson before suggesting a committee be formed. The sheriff wasn’t present at Monday’s meeting, but Scott proceeded to note that her recent tour of the jail yielded findings of plumbing issues which requires prisoners to be shipped out to be housed at other facilities. “I think it would be important for people to see the condition of the jail,” Scott said.

Justice Albert Neal (D-District 4) asked what part a committee would play in “getting the jail up to par” with standards. Scott said a committee could make suggestions, and hinted at a ballot measure seeking funds for renovations or construction of a new facility. Neal argued that a committee would be “of no value” since the sheriff controls the operation of the jail. A committee, Scott countered, “could at least make some recommendations.”

Justice Vanilla Hannah (D-District 3) inquired of Scott what the sheriff’s jail priorities were, to which Scott replied: ongoing plumbing problems, HVAC issues and “basic mechanical stuff.” County Judge Troy Tucker retorted if the quorum court had ever denied Watson of a request. Neal, a longtime justice, said he couldn’t think of a time that the court turned down any of Watson’s requests, adding that the state audits both the jail and sheriff’s operations, providing justices with an annual report. “What good would a committee do?” Neal asked.

Scott had support in Justice Michael Ankton (D-District 2), who responded that a committee would “show the public that the justices of the peace are making an initiative to make something better instead of saying, ‘That’s the sheriff’s job; if he wants it better he’ll come and ask, and we’ll give it to him because we give him everything he asks for.’ I don’t like the way that sounds.” Ankton added that others want to be involved in the decision-making process. “[Scott] is not the first person to say something about how bad this jail is,” Ankton said. “I’ve heard it from other citizens.”

Justice Jimmy King (R-District 5) argued that creating a committee would be “redundant” because “we would have the sheriff and the committee making the same recommendations to fix the same thing.” Ankton argued that a committee would add insight from others; King countered, saying, “We’d be making recommendations to ourselves.” Scott pointed out that the two committees of the quorum court — the personnel and budget committees — exist and do just that.

Justice Mark Overturf suggested broadening the committee to include all county-owned facilities (the court complex, courthouse, library, etc.), but his recommendation was cut short when Tucker told justices their job is “to legislate and appropriate — that’s it. You’ve got to walk a thin line on interfering with these other elected officials’ responsibilities.” Tucker went on to suggest justices make their recommendations to elected officials in a one-on-one setting. Neal added to the discussion that, although the quorum court has the ability to create committees, the judge has the authority to appoint the members. “If we appoint 20 committees and the judge don’t appoint anybody to serve on them, what do we have?” Scott pointed out that her ordinance specified the number of justices to be appointed to each committee. Tucker said he would be willing to take recommendations “under advisement” but added that he wouldn’t be “obligated to appoint anybody to any committee. I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but I don’t think I’m obligated to.”

King switched the topic of the jail committee to the Lakeview committee, asking if the county has any legal authority in the matter. Tucker was quick to respond: “No. You can’t sign an agreement [with the Corps], a memorandum of understanding, [not even] a contract.” The judge added that the Lakeview area is included in the plans for a trail system.

Discussion between Tucker and Scott grew momentarily tense. Tucker said an existing panel of citizens (they were unnamed at the meeting) “are working now [to] design something” for that area. Scott said she submitted recommendations to him in early 2020. Tucker, who said he’s been in contact with the Corps, suggested Scott take the reins of the project. “A plan is being developed,” Tucker added. “It may not be as quickly as you would like, but it is being developed.”

Scott then called to order the motion she had previously made to place the ordinance on its first reading. Her motion failed 5-6, receiving dissenting votes from justices Hannah, Johns, King, Neal, Wayne Baumgardner and Zach Bledsoe. Voting in favor of reading the ordinance were Scott, Ankton, Overturf, Andrea Angle and Tracy Ellis Drake.

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