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A former state representative is Jefferson County's new chief executive officer, after a unanimous vote Thursday evening by the Jefferson County Quorum Court.

Justices of the peace selected Booker Clemons, 82, out of six candidates for the position. They deliberated in executive session for an hour and a half.

Clemons, a Democrat, said two of the biggest priorities for the county are cleaning up litter and increasing economic development. He said he didn't have a plan to tackle those concerns yet -- Thursday was his first time attending a Quorum Court meeting.

He'll serve until Dec. 31, when a new publicly elected county judge will take over. Democrats Dutch King, a former county judge, and Sheriff Gerald Robinson have filed to run for the position, and whoever wins the primary in May will take office next year. No one else has filed.

Clemons' appointment comes three days after former County Judge Hank Wilkins IV suddenly submitted a letter of resignation Monday. On March 17, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that a federal prosecutor said in court that Wilkins admitted to taking $100,000 in bribes from indicted lobbyist Milton Russell "Rusty" Cranford while he served in the Arkansas Legislature.

After Thursday's meeting, justices of the peace expressed their hope for Clemons to turn the county in the right direction.

Justice of the Peace Ted Harden of White Hall said the county has unpaid bills, including one that's three months past due to a contractor. He declined to go into greater detail.

"We've got to get everything stabilized," Harden said.

Justice of the Peace Delton Wright said he had been concerned about where money was being spent, too, including $50,000 paid to a law firm for work about which he has no knowledge.

Harden supported Clemons because he is "level-headed," listens and is curious.

Quorum Court members had a list of five candidates for the county's top job, but only four of those were present at Thursday night's meeting and a person not on the list announced his candidacy at the meeting.

[DOCUMENT: Read Jefferson County Judge Henry Wilkins’ resignation letter]

Candidates were given up to two minutes before the executive session to make their cases.

The other candidates were:

• Calvin Johnson, 77, a retired University of Arkansas at Little Rock department head and former state legislator.

• John Lytle, 61, a former orthopedist who retired in 2015.

• James Murray, a pastor and former sheriff's office patrolman who had previously formed an exploratory committee to run for the county judge position but did not file.

• Jack Jones Sr., 73, former county judge of Jefferson County for 18 years and the county's first garbageman, he said.

• Berlin Jones, a longtime circuit judge who did not attend the meeting.

Clemons is retired from the University of Arkansas Extension Service's Jefferson County office, where he worked for 33 years. He served in the Arkansas House from 2001 until 2007. He is married with three grown children.

"I was kind of surprised," Clemons said after the vote, "but I felt I was qualified."

He said that among his first orders of business is to learn county policies and when committees meet.

Before consideration of the candidates, Justice of the Peace Conley Byrd Sr. of Redfield said he did not think a vote should take place, because he didn't think residents had been adequately informed that the Quorum Court would be selecting the interim county judge Thursday night. He said some people who told him they were interested in the job were not at Thursday's meeting.

Others argued that the public notice of the meeting was clearly stated, and the meeting continued.

Quorum Court chairman for the evening, Herman Ginger, declined to say why he voted for Clemons, except that having all justices of the peace vote unanimously was a sign of solidarity.

Ginger said he would like to see the county get on a "straight and narrow path," but did not specify what he meant by that and stated another common expression that there would be "no smoke and mirrors."

Wright said Clemons will have some cleaning up to do, including ensuring juvenile-justice initiatives are adequately funded, in his opinion, and generally helping the county to be better stewards of taxpayer money.

He said he is proud to have Clemons do the job.

"I'm not worried about him taking anything or doing anything wrong," Wright said.

Metro on 03/23/2018

Print Headline: Retiree selected county's top exec; JP vote replaces Wilkins, who quit

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