Attorney general moves to undo Allport town charter

Rutledge erred in not doing as law requires, Griffin says

Lt. Governor Tim Griffin speaks, Thursday, May 6, 2021 at the site of the new LISA Academy Public Charter school in Rogers. LISA Academy Public Charter Schools broke ground on the new LISA Rogers-Bentonville school campus. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)
Lt. Governor Tim Griffin speaks, Thursday, May 6, 2021 at the site of the new LISA Academy Public Charter school in Rogers. LISA Academy Public Charter Schools broke ground on the new LISA Rogers-Bentonville school campus. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

After dropping a lawsuit filed by his predecessor that gave the tiny town of Allport more time to comply with Arkansas' municipal accounting laws, state Attorney General Tim Griffin on Tuesday filed a suit seeking to revoke the town's charter.

In a news release, Griffin said former Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, in her suit filed in 2021, "erroneously sought to create a remedy not allowed by the statute as an alternative to revocation."

"Last week I successfully sought and was granted a dismissal of that action," Griffin said in the release.

"Today, I am filing a new lawsuit to revoke the charter of Allport because Arkansas law requires me to do so. The statute says the Attorney General shall -- not may-- file pleadings to revoke the charter. Thus, it leaves me no discretion."

In response, Rutledge spokesman Sandy Hall referred to Rutledge's written statement on Friday.

"As Attorney General I used my constitutional authority to litigate a case as I saw fit, and a judge agreed with my assertion of separation of powers and this case could have been resolved under the existing filing rather than re-litigating it," Rutledge said in the statement.

On Jan. 10, Griffin, the state's former lieutenant governor, was sworn in as the state's attorney general and Rutledge, of Maumelle, was sworn in as the state's lieutenant governor. They are seen in political circles as rivals.

With a population of 86, based on 2020 U.S. census information, Allport is an agriculture-dependent community that sits between England and Stuttgart.

It is a community of primarily Black landowners who have owned and maintained their land since the town was established in 1967, attorney Willard Proctor Jr. of Little Rock, who has represented Allport, has noted. In 2019, a prosecutor determined the city's Police Department violated Arkansas' speed trap law.

The suits filed by Rutledge and Griffin both stemmed from Act 712 of 2017, which created a procedure for the revocation of a charter of a municipal corporation as a result of its noncompliance with state municipal accounting law under certain conditions.

The law allows the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee, after following a procedure spelled out in the law, to notify the attorney general of a city's noncompliance. After receiving the notification, the attorney general is required to file a suit to revoke the city's charter.

In a filing in her suit on Sept. 10, 2021, Rutledge said the statutes enacted to revoke a municipal charter "are constitutionally infirm" in this case.

She said she had attempted to avoid the constitutional infirmities with the revocation statutes by exercising her broad discretion in pursuing Allport's compliance with the revocation statutes in accordance with Arkansas' Constitution, including Amendment 80.

In an Aug. 12, 2021 order in that suit, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert T. Wright Jr. found that Allport is afforded an opportunity to comply with all outstanding and deficient Arkansas municipal accounting laws for 2019 and 2020 within 180 days of June 17, 2021, which was Dec. 14, 2021.

His order required the court to appoint a special master to review whether Allport has come into compliance with the laws for 2019 and 2020. After reviewing the special master's findings, Wright would determine Allport's compliance and decide if the charter should be revoked.

The Pulaski County clerk's records don't indicate that such a special master was ever appointed in the case.

On Nov. 30, Wright denied an attempt by then-Legislative Joint Auditing Committee co-Chairs Sen. Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne, and Rep. Richard Womack, R-Arkadelphia, to intervene.

Allowing such an intervention in the case, "particularly in their official capacity as legislators, would be a blatant violation of separation of powers," Wright said in the ruling.

Last week, Wright granted Griffin's request to dismiss the suit.

In Griffin's lawsuit filed Tuesday in Pulaski County Circuit Court, Senior Assistant Attorney General Noah P. Watson wrote that the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee twice notified Allport that it had failed to substantially comply with the municipal accounting law after going through the process in Arkansas Code Annotated 14-59-117.

Those notifications were received by Allport on or about Jan. 9, 2019, and Sept. 18, 2020, which is separated by less than three years, he said.

Afterward, the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee notified the attorney general of Allport's noncompliance.

Thus, the court should revoke Allport's charter and order the clerk of the court to certify a transcript of the order and forward a copy to the governor, secretary of state, the Arkansas Geographic Information Systems office, and the county judge of Lonoke County, Watson said.

Moreover, he said, the court should retain jurisdiction over this matter until a final order of dissolution is entered in accordance with Arkansas Code Annotated 14-62-114.

Allport was the first city to face the potential loss of its charter under the procedure outlined in the 2017 law, which was sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana.

The measure became law without then-Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson's signature.

In 2017, Hutchinson, who is an attorney, said, "The wording of the bill provides no discretion to the attorney general's office before filing a petition with the courts to revoke a charter of a municipal corporation.

"The discretion resides with legislative audit rather than the attorney general. This bill is not the correct balance," the governor said at that time.

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