Leader Blues

Saturday, January 23, 2010

TOP STORY >> Lonoke JPs quiz land deal, ‘retirements’

Leader senior staff writer

The Lonoke County Quorum Court tabled until the February meeting consideration of an ordinance authorizing County Judge Charlie Troutman to pay a quorum court member and his wife $60,000 for about 1.6 acres of right-of-way for a state Highway Department project to improve the southbound Hwy. 67/167 exit in Cabot at Hwy. 5.

Troutman has offered JP Larry Odom and his wife, Sandra K. Odom, $60,000 for the land and the title had already been registered before the quorum court met. This prompted JP Mark Edwards to call it “a sweetheart deal” in an email sent to two other quorum court members and also to members of the media.

The purchase price would be about $1.15 a square foot. Troutman told the court of “comparables” in the area that were in the $3 to $4.50 a square-foot range.

The money, which would come from the county road and bridge budget, would be part of the county’s match for the $893,000 project.

By the end of the discussion, Odom withdrew an earlier offer to take the $60,000 or whatever the state Highway Department appraisal was, regardless of the amount. Instead, he said, he would take the amount of the Highway Department appraisal. Troutman said he knew the amount of the appraisal, but hadn’t told anyone.

Troutman, as county judge, has the authority to make such purchases, but because Odom is a quorum court member, the quorum court must approve the purchase.

In Edwards’ e-mail, he called Odom’s property swampland.

Both Odom and Troutman expressed anger at Edward’s accusations, and by the end of the conversation, Edwards had apologized for the harshness of his accusations and Troutman apologized for getting combative himself.

In the matter of the so-called “double dipping” by county treasurer Karol DePriest and Assessor Jerry Adams, the court tabled Edwards’ motion to declare a vacancy to exist in each of those offices. Only Edwards voted against tabling his motion.

In the absence of county attorney Jeff Sikes, the court asked county prosecutor Will Feland about declaring a vacancy to exist.

“Basically, you’d be making a judicial determination that this conduct constituted a resignation. I would advise you to talk to your counsel first.”

DePriest and Adams each quietly went 90 consecutive days without pay last year, qualifying under the rules then in place to begin collecting their state retirement from the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System.

Edwards and JP Alexis Malham said that meant they had resigned from their jobs, but Deborah Hoggard, Adams’ and DePriest’s attorney, said they never stopped performing their duties and that no vacancy existed.

“Resign or retire mean the same thing,” said JP Janette Minton.

“There’s nothing we can do,” said JP Henry Lang. “It’s a shame the term “double dipping” got used. They earned their retirement.”

In the matter of the $67,000 allegedly misappropriated by Cassandra Pitts in the sheriff’s office, Sheriff Jim Roberson told the court — Edwards in particular — that new, computerized procedures were now in place to assure against a similar problem in the future. The missing money was discovered by the state Bureau of Legislative Audit.