Jefferson County Quorum Court plans 2 clashing meeting times

Members of the Jefferson County Quorum Court, shown here, have two competing meetings on Tuesday. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Eplunus Colvin)

Two special-called Jefferson County Quorum Court meetings are being held on the same day around the same time but by different elected officials of the county.

Justice of the Peace Lloyd Franklin Jr. has called a special-called meeting of the full quorum court for Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Jefferson County courthouse in the quorum court meeting room to address the matter of the 2023-24 Rules of Procedure Ordinance.

According to the Arkansas Counties 2022 Procedures Manual, at the first initial meeting of the year, the quorum court should determine its rules of procedure and adopt them at the first regular meeting of the quorum court. This has not been done yet.

Revisions to the original policy and procedures have been made by the Judicial Committee, which has had three chairs reassigned by Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson. Vying to insert their changes in place of the ones introduced by the county judge and ultimately give the quorum court more decision-making authority, Franklin said, the justices of the peace want to move forward with the adoption of policy and procedures items.

Several JPs have complained of the harsh tone in the original policy presented by the county judge, but Robinson has said the procedures he presented are the same ones adopted every year and are taken from Robert's Rules of Order and language from the Arkansas Counties Judges Procedures Manual. According to Franklin, the Judicial Committee, which was first chaired by Alfred Carroll and then Melanie Dumas, both of whom were reassigned by Robinson, has attempted to get the new legislation on the quorum court's agenda, but Robinson has refused to comply.

"A majority of the whole number of justices have voted to approve my request, which is necessary to conduct any legislative affairs of the county," Franklin said.

"Judge Robinson left the Judicial Committee no choice other than to work as a collective group on their own rules of procedure, which would outline how we would govern," Franklin said.

Franklin referenced Arkansas Code Annotated § 14-14-904(e) which states: "Except as otherwise provided by law, the quorum court of each county shall determine its rules of procedure and may compel the attendance of absent members in such manner and under such penalties as may be prescribed by ordinance."

Almost simultaneously, a special Quorum Court meeting involving the Human Resource Committee was called by the county judge's office for a grievance hearing appeal from former Tri-County Drug Task Force Investigator Joseph O'Neal, who claims he was denied due process after an abrupt transfer and termination. He alleges that there was a violation of the Jefferson County sheriff's office policy, which resulted in his dismissal from the agency on Jan. 20.

The complaint by O'Neal goes on to say that when he sent freedom of information requests for all documents relating to complaints against him, Sheriff Lafayette Woods Jr. advised him to accept the decisions made by his administration as constructive criticism.

"After receiving the documents from the FOIA request relating to the investigative file, I discovered that statements were submitted by certain members of the Administration," O'Neal said in his complaint. "It was discovered that several statements detailed discrepancies and untruthful events related to the meeting held on Friday, January 13, 2023. It is my position that these statements were derived in an effort to support the violations that ultimately resulted in my termination."

In an appeal to the Jefferson County Human Resource Committee, O'Neal stated he hopes to have this matter resolved in a fair manner. That grievance hearing is scheduled for Tuesday at 5:15 p.m. in the same quorum court meeting room as the special-called meeting. According to Robinson, this is the first grievance hearing being held by the county that will proceed with a court recorder.

With both meetings scheduled around the same time, the question arises as to how the JPs will manage the conflicting schedules.

According to Franklin, the meeting he has called will move forward with or without the county judge. According to A.C.A. § 14-14-904(d), "in the absence of the county judge a quorum of the justices by majority vote shall elect one of their number to preside, but without the power to veto."

"When due to the absence of the county judge, a justice is elected to the office of the presiding officer, that justice forfeits the right to propose motions and to participate in the debate." However, it also notes that while the county judge has no vote as a presiding officer, when a justice presides he/she does not lose the right to vote on matters before the assembly.

In conclusion, regulation states "a regular committee or special committee of the quorum court shall not consist of more than a quorum of the whole body without the consent of the county judge."

In an emailed response from Robinson to Franklin dated Feb. 24, Robinson addressed Franklin's authority.

"Mr. Franklin you do not have the authority to circumvent the authority of the county judge's executive powers nor will you override or disrespect Justice [Patricia] Johnson's chairmanship," said Robinson in the email.

Franklin said he felt that Robinson has failed to properly exercise the power entrusted to him by the public.

"Judge Robinson has the appearance of executive power which has led to prohibited actions, specifically the actions by his office," said Franklin. "The County judge is not permitted to impose his will in place of the law. When this happens, it is an abuse of power."

Citing A.C.A. § 5-52-107, Franklin said failing to place an item on the agenda when requested to do so, on several occasions, simply because the item is in opposition to a position held by the county judge is not only unfair, but illegal.

"The quorum court represents the entirety of Jefferson County and is the vehicle by which the people speak through their elected officials," said Franklin. "When a meeting is adjourned by the county judge because he doesn't want to hear from the people it mutes their voices. The actions I have undertaken under A.C.A. § 14-14-904 (C)(2) are both within the spirit and the letter of the law and seeks to give the people back their voice and their vote."

As of Saturday afternoon, both meetings were still scheduled at their respective day and times.

"As the county judge, I will stay within the boundaries of the law that permits me to operate as the chief executive," Robinson said in a phone interview on Saturday on the subject. "Those of the quorum court are trying to circumvent that process, but Arkansas constitution won't allow that. That is why there is a separation of power between the legislative and executive. You cannot bypass the office of the county judge."