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Little Rock board questions settlement process amid rift between city attorney and outside lawyers in Blackshire litigation

by Joseph Flaherty | October 14, 2021 at 7:03 a.m.
FILE — Little Rock City Hall is shown in this 2019 file photo.

Members of the Little Rock Board of Directors in a meeting Wednesday addressed the ongoing rift between City Attorney Tom Carpenter and outside attorneys regarding the tentative settlement to a lawsuit against the city over the 2019 fatal police shooting of Bradley Blackshire.

It was the first time city directors have commented in a public setting on the dispute. Several took the opportunity to raise concerns about entering into a settlement without the city attorney having apprised them of the agreement's terms.

At one point during the meeting, Carpenter said a decision was apparently made "not to let us know any more about it," referring to the outside counsel representing the city.

Blackshire's estate filed suit in 2019 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, naming the city, as well as Charles Starks -- the officer who killed Blackshire and then was fired, reinstated and ultimately resigned -- and Michael Simpson, a police officer who was the first to arrive at the scene of the shooting as backup.

The conflict's central issue is whether the city can enter into the settlement and thereby end the litigation without authorization from the Board of Directors. The argument is based on the sum the city would pay to Blackshire's estate.

The general counsel for the Arkansas Municipal League, which is representing the city in conjunction with attorneys from two law firms, and Little Rock's communications office have suggested it can.

The league's general counsel John Wilkerson has cited the fact that under the proposed agreement, the city would pay $49,500 -- a figure below the $50,000 threshold that officials say can be approved by the city manager and does not require formal board authorization.

Under the draft agreement, the Municipal League would pay $250,500 to the estate.

Additionally, according to the settlement, the city and Police Department would have to take other actions, such as implementing additional training on the use of force and de-escalation within the department, and producing a video featuring a member of the Blackshire family to be shown to police recruits for at least 10 years.

Starks is represented in the litigation by attorney Robert Newcomb, who has said a separate settlement has been reached with his client.

In his correspondence on the subject, Carpenter has argued that the agreement must get the board's review before final approval can occur because the monetary sum to be authorized by the city manager was not subject to competitive bid.

Additionally, Carpenter has raised concerns about the non-monetary provisions in the settlement that would require additional police training, among other elements, describing them as policy matters subject to the board's oversight.

According to court filings, in August 2020, Carpenter's office exited the case as counsel of record for the city, and the litigation was turned over to the Municipal League in light of lawsuits that had been filed against the police chief and the city by two assistant police chiefs.

In a letter to U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. filed Wednesday, the outside lawyers representing the city said it was their opinion that the settlement agreement and its non-monetary provisions have received final approval from Little Rock.

"City management has consistently approved settlement agreements where the funds attributable to the City of Little Rock are less than $50,000.00," they wrote.

In an order later that day, Marshall wrote, "The Court will not take any action until the parties have finalized a settlement and the probate court has approved it. If a settlement is not finalized and approved, the Court will enter a Fifth Amended Final Scheduling Order that re-sets unexpired deadlines and restores the April 2022 trial date."

He set Nov. 12 as the due date for a joint report on the settlement.

When prompted by Mayor Frank Scott Jr. during Wednesday's meeting, City Manager Bruce Moore -- who recently returned to the office after traveling abroad between Oct. 7-12, according to a notification sent to city officials last week -- described the process used to settle litigation throughout his tenure.

Moore said officials work closely with the city attorney's office, and if the sides get close to an agreement, the city attorney lets the board know which direction they are going. If an objection is raised, officials go back to the table, Moore said.

Moore described the present situation as unique because the Municipal League and the outside attorneys are representing Little Rock, as opposed to the city attorney.

Scott asked Moore to address the $50,000 limit, and Moore said his office has operated with the understanding that the city manager has the authority to make payments not to exceed $50,000.

He said "a lot of times, the cases are settled for a whole lot less, whether it's $33,000 or $10,000." And Moore again emphasized the uniqueness of the situation.

"I basically have been sort of being guided by two or three sets of legal experts," he said.

Vice Mayor Lance Hines of Ward 5 expressed his opposition to the settlement, arguing that "the facts are, this board was never consulted on this settlement."

Prompted again by Scott, Moore said he would defer to Carpenter, but expressed his view that there has never been an official board vote to settle a particular lawsuit.

City Director Doris Wright of Ward 6 said that during her tenure, the city attorney has reached out to board members in the past to make them aware when a settlement is reached.

"He is the city attorney, not whoever these Municipal League people are," Wright said. "He is, and so any communication or any advice that, in my opinion, this board receives needs to come from him."

She went on, "So even though ... we have not voted on settlements that were under $50,000, we have been made aware of them, and we were not made aware of this. And I believe that may be some of the objection."

Moments later, Moore deferred to Carpenter.

"There was evidently a decision not to let us know any more about it," Carpenter said.

He recounted how the litigation began with his office handling it but was later turned over to the Municipal League because of a legal conflict.

Carpenter went on to describe how notification was received at the end of last year that mediation would take place to settle the case.

He said the issue was discussed with the league and city personnel, but officials did not go through with mediation "because the amount being requested went up substantially," he said. Carpenter said it was agreed that information would be shared with his office.

Carpenter said he was told recently that Starks would not pay any damages under the settlement while the city would pay $500,000.

"That bothered me," Carpenter said. "The issue was brought up again, and I was assured that I would be kept in the loop. And that was not done."

He said it was not true that the board has not been contacted about settlements that were under the $50,000 amount.

Carpenter referred to a past case involving three different lawsuits that were filed after the firing of three police recruits. In that instance, he said board members were informed of the settlement amount.

Carpenter said he did not know of any case in the past 30 years where a death was caused by an officer's use of deadly force and the board has been left out of the discussion.

At-large City Director Joan Adcock said in her 29 years on the board, probably every case has featured Carpenter calling officials and telling them about the plan. Adcock said she was always told she could object if she wanted to.

City Director B.J. Wyrick of Ward 7 asked for clarification on whether in fact the city manager has the authority to spend less than $50,000 without a competitive bid.

Moore said he has always operated under the assumption that his office did have that spending authority. Referring to Carpenter's objection, Moore said last week was the first time he saw in writing that the authority only dealt with competitive bids.

Shortly thereafter during the meeting, Scott suggested that he agreed with Wyrick that clarification on the city manager's spending authority was "sorely needed."

At-large City Director Dean Kumpuris echoed Adcock's comments regarding board members conferring with the city attorney. Carpenter allowed board members the opportunity to object, in which case the matter would have to be discussed by the board, Kumpuris suggested.

"And so, I really don't, in all honesty, care about the $50,000 limit. The question is, are we in charge?" Kumpuris asked. "And if we're not in charge, we might as well go on home."

He described Carpenter as their conduit to the litigation, regardless of his recusal status relative to the Municipal League, "and that conduit was broken," Kumpuris said. "So, I don't know how this gets resolved or if the settlement really is in place if this board says it isn't, or if the board says that it has to be discussed."

At the meeting, Scott said the Municipal League would address the board next week.

The purpose of the meeting Wednesday was to allow board members the opportunity to vote on a replacement for the late Ward 1 City Director Erma Hendrix.

After their discussion of the settlement dispute, board members met in a closed session and returned to appoint Virgil L. Miller Jr., a local banker, to the vacant seat.

Print Headline: Little Rock board weighs in on deal to settle suit in fatal police shooting of Bradley Blackshire

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