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Washington County officials debate county attorney pay raise

by Tom Sissom | May 12, 2021 at 7:23 a.m.
The Washington County Courthouse is seen in Fayetteville in this undated file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County's justices of the peace on Tuesday clashed over raising county attorney Brian Lester's annual salary by nearly $20,000.

The Quorum Court's Finance and Budget Committee endorsed the proposal, which increases the county attorney's pay from $83,780 to $103,000, and the proposal will be on the agenda for the May 20 Quorum Court meeting.

Lance Johnson, justice of the peace for District 1 in Springdale, said he supported the raise.

"Ever since I've been on this court, I've felt the county attorney's position was the most underpaid position in Washington County government," Johnson said. "I agree wholeheartedly with this motion (to approve the ordinance)."

Eva Madison, justice of the peace for District 9 in Fayetteville isn't a member of the committee but said during discussion of the proposal was "totally inappropriate" and said the six Republican justices of the peace on the committee had a clear conflict of interest in voting for a raise for Lester, who was elected as the chairman of the Washington County Republican Party in January. Madison pointed out similar proposals have been voted down several times in the past few years.

"If six Democrats were sitting here talking about giving a member of their party a raise you would all be screaming," Madison said.

Shawndra Washington, justice of the peace for District 8 in Fayetteville is the lone Democrat serving on the Finance Committee.

Patrick Deakins, justice of the peace for District 5 in northeastern Washington County and chairman of the committee, stopped Madison while she was speaking, saying she was making personal attacks on other justices of the peace.

Bill Ussery, justice of the peace for District 4 in Springdale, said the proposal should have gone to the Personnel Committee before being taken up by the Finance Committee.

The debate continued during public comments on the proposal, with Sarah Moore of Fayetteville suggesting the county attorney's salary should be considered along with other employees, since the Quorum Court's Personnel Committee has said it wants to examine the pay ranges for all county employees, which have remained unchanged since 2016. Moore also suggested the $83,780 was "a very good salary for this area" and "above average for an attorney in our area."

Evelyn Rios Stafford, justice of the peace for District 12 in Fayetteville, is not on the committee but spoke during public comments. Stafford also said the justices of the peace should complete their review of all county employees' pay before proceeding with the raise for Lester.

Speaking again during the public comment portion of the discussion, Madison said the justices of the peace have been discussing merit raises for other employees and said the proposed raise would make Lester "the highest-paid county attorney" in the state without any discussion of whether it is deserved.

"It's a slap in the face to our other county employees," Madison said.

Stafford read a comment she received from a constituent, Kyle Smith of Fayetteville, during the discussion of the raise. Smith suggested leaving the county attorney salary unchanged and suggested if Lester is unsatisfied he could seek other employment.

"If County Attorney Lester believes he can find another employer that will more generously compensate him for his services, then that is the nature of competition," Smith said.

Deakins said after the meeting that Madison's allegations of a conflict of interest or that any justices of the peace were influenced by Lester's political position were "completely unfounded" and "laughable."

Madison said she will continue to object to the raise at the Quorum Court meeting.

Also at Tuesday's meeting, the justices of the peace voted to spend $297,865 from the $4.5 million in CARES Act money the county has received to compensate employees of the Washington County Detention Center and the Juvenile Detention Center. According to Deakins, full-time employees are eligible for additional pay of $50 for each pay period they worked in the past year. Part-time employees are eligible for $25 for each pay period they worked. Deakins said the maximum amount any employee could receive is about $1,300.

While the idea of providing jail employees with extra compensation was supported, other justices of the peace questioned why the compensation was being limited. Employees in other offices worked throughout the pandemic, they said, keeping the courthouse open and county offices functioning. The Coroner's office, County Clerk's office and Circuit Clerk's office were among those mentioned.

Circuit Clerk Kyle Sylvester said his employees worked to keep his office open for essential business throughout the pandemic and some of his employees had contracted covid as a result. Sylvester challenged the justices of the peace to come up with a proposal to recognize other deserving county employees.

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Washington County’s Finance and Budget Committee on Tuesday recommended spending $93,000 to buy body cameras for deputies and jailers in the Sheriff’s Office. The money would come from the communications fund in the Sheriff’s Office budget. The ordinance will be considered by the Quorum Court when it meets May 20.

Source: Washington County


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