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Washington County News & Update 7/23

What happened last week? We have A LOT to discuss, so grab your coffee and dive in with me!


➦ We received a FAVORABLE RULING in my AFOIA case against the county.

➦ Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC) Courts Subcommittee met on 7/19.

➦ The Fourth Judicial Drug Task Force met on 7/19.

➦ Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC) Programs met Friday 7/21.

➦ The WC Quorum Court (QC) met on 7/19.

NO! Should the QC stop allowing appeals to the planning commission. We will vote on this at the AUGUST QC meeting on 8/17.

YES! The QC will vote on the ordinance to fund local nonprofits through ARPA money. Please join me at the courthouse on 8/17 to show your support.


UPDATE - FAVORABLE RULING - ON THE ARKANSAS FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT LAWSUIT Coger v. Deakins Etal. This lawsuit was filed after the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee met in closed session February 7th, despite the CJCC coordinator being warned by me and others that doing so would be a violation of the law.


Special Assigned Judge Mark Hewitt notified my attorney Friday afternoon that he was ruling in our favor as to the CJCC meetings being public meetings and other issues in the complaint (recording of meetings, for example) and is awarding me attorney fees of $5,110.00 plus costs in the amount of $335.00. I will share more information and a copy of the judgment when it is filed with the court, hopefully this week.


I shouldn’t have to file lawsuits to get access to meetings and answers to AFOIA requests and the taxpayers of Washington County should not be out these additional expenses, but neither should I. We must demand better from our county government. This is the second time in seven months the Washington County government has been found in violation of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act and other statutes with regard to public meetings and public records.


HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED LAST WEEK:


The Courts Subcommittee of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC) met July 18th. This subcommittee included a continued discussion of creating a proposed pretrial services program. The Pretrial Subcommittee is working to have a proposal for the full CJCC meeting in August.


During a discussion about case dispositions and moving the docket along, Circuit Judge Mark Lindsay stated, “Until we get more prosecutors and public defenders…” we’re not going to be able to move more cases than we already are. Certainly, we need more public defenders and we need to pay our public defenders more to retain the ones we do have. Also, our public defender’s office is in need of upgrades and that was funded last year, but to date no work has been done. The Criminal Justice Assessment Study of 2020 said it was important that prosecutors and public defenders be on a level playing field, that they be treated and funded exactly as the prosecutors, even including parking availability.


The Programs Subcommittee of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC) met July 21st. We were informed that the mental health court grant the county applied for a few months ago was still pending, but the funders had reached out to the county grants department for more information and explanation of some statements in the grant application itself.


Judge Terra Stephenson asked the CJCC Coordinator to include in the CJCC agenda an appearance by Sheriff Office personnel to come and address the panel on ankle monitors to get a clear understanding whether or not that program needed more funding (in the form of another position) and what conditions and/or restrictions were being considered when making ankle monitors available. The coordinator stated she did not want to do that without checking with the sheriff’s office first.


The Fourth Judicial Drug Task Force met July 19th. I was unable to attend this meeting, but you can read their monthly reports and the minutes from the June meeting and see their financial reports. This is another organization that pretty much goes unobserved, but one that has a huge impact on our community.


WASHINGTON COUNTY QUORUM COURT met for our regular monthly meeting Thursday, July 19. Please watch the YouTube video to see and hear all that happened, but here are some high points (or low points, depending on your viewpoint):


JP Kyle Lyons’ ordinance to do away with the court’s ability to hear appeals from the Planning Board was on its second reading. He made a motion to move it to its third reading, but that failed. This ordinance will be on next month’s agenda for its third reading. This is a terrible idea and a bad ordinance. It will take power away from the people by making it mandatory that all Planning Board appeals go straight to circuit court, eliminating the quorum court’s ability to hear appeals. Why would we even consider giving up more of our legislative authority?


My ordinance to award grants of American Rescue Plan Act money to local nonprofits - nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) totaling $598,117.00 was on its second reading. I did not move for it to go to its third reading because JP Highers was absent, and she had been a “yes” vote previously. However, JP Kyle Lyons, District 5, did make a motion to move it to its third and final reading which would have meant it would be voted on Thursday. Thankfully that motion did not pass. My ordinance to fund these nonprofits will now be on for its third reading at the August meeting.


Judge Deakins recently hired Catherine Baker (formerly with the NWA Economic Development District) as Deputy County Attorney whose salary will be $109,000. Our county attorney, Brian Lester, makes $119,000 and the “legal advisor” at the sheriff’s office (an attorney) makes $90,000. That’s $318,000 of taxpayer money for lawyers for our county government. Our sister county (Benton County) budgets $80K for outside contracts with attorneys for one year, but this turned into something much more than whether we need another attorney.


Please listen to the video starting at 1:046:47 where I tried to point out to the court the above facts. District 6 JP Lisa Ecke interrupts with a “point of order call” that my comments “are not germane to this particular ordinance.” The judge ruled in her favor, and I appealed but lost. We were discussing a budget addition. My comments were directly related to the budget. There’s a danger when someone’s voice is silenced. JP Ecke said she wasn’t silencing anyone, just “having a discussion.” There’s no discussion if only one person is allowed to speak and just because you don’t want to hear what someone else has to say doesn’t make it “not germane to the issue.”


CRISIS STABILIZATION UNIT: Judge Deakins announced that the state was considering cutting funding for the CSU from $90,000 to $60,000 per month beginning at the end of September. He said, “...we're on borrowed time here for 90 days while we try to work to fulfill that funding gap.” It would be a shame if we lose this asset which provinces access to mental health, often as an alternative to jail. Additionally, mental health and pretrial services will need the CSU to assist with those programs. I don’t know if this is because our numbers are low, or lower than other CSUs in the state, but I will be gathering more information on this in the days to come.

Upcoming Meetings & Events


1. WASHINGTON COUNTY JOBS EVALUATION SALARY ADMINISTRATION PROGRAM (JESAP) meets Monday, July 24, 2023, 3:30 PM, Fifth Floor Conference Room. This meeting has a huge agenda with so many position upgrades, pay increases and new hires.


These JESAP meetings fly under the radar, and they shouldn’t. This is where we first hear proposals for salary increases, job description updates and new job descriptions, grade level changes and more. Please review the agenda and let me know if you have any questions or would like more information.


2. WASHINGTON COUNTY ELECTION COMMISSION meets Wednesday, July 26, 2023, 10:00 AM, Quorum Court Room, Washington County Courthouse. This meeting will include a ballot draw for the November 14, 2023, City of Fayetteville Special Election: Ward 1 Position 1 Vacancy and to set early voting and election day sites for that election. You can read the entire agenda here. This meeting will be live streamed on the County Election Commission’s YouTube Channel: here.


3. WASHINGTON COUNTY CRIMINAL JUSTICE COORDINATING COMMITTEE (CJCC) meets Thursday, July 27, 2023, Quorum Court Room, Washington County Courthouse. No agenda is posted currently. I’ll share that later if it is posted as it should be, but I expect we will hear more about pretrial services, some kind of education classes at the jail, mental health court, the Crisis Stabilization Unit and more.


CALLS TO ACTION:

  • If you can only attend one meeting this week, please consider the CJCC full committee meeting at noon Thursday.

  • If you can attend two meetings, please consider making it the JESAP meeting 3:30 Monday and the CJCC Thursday.

  • Call Judge Deakins, Sheriff Cantrell (he’s on the CJCC) and as many Justices of the Peace as you can. Get to know them. Meet them for coffee. Tell them you want a real pretrial services program in Washington County.

  • Mark your calendars now for Thursday, August 17, 2023, 6:00 PM for the August Quorum Court meeting where the ARPA ordinance and the Lyons’ ordinance to do away with Planning Board appeals to the QC will both be on the agenda. We need to pack the courtroom for that meeting and be prepared to speak if you’re comfortable doing so. It does make a difference when we have community members in the audience.


I welcome your questions and comments, also suggestions you have for any county related business. You can reach me at ejcoger@gmail.com or text or call 479-306-9994.


Here’s the link to email addresses and telephone numbers for JPs, County Judge, and others.


See you at the courthouse!


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