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Gary B.: Disagreement continues between district court and quorum court over clerk position

Article by Gary Bridgman
White River Now News Director

You spend over $300,000 on land through the county road committee, yet you want to take away an employee from the district court who has been working in the office since 2004 and is definitely needed.

Independence County District Judge Chaney Taylor did not say it that way, but I listened this morning to the audio from Monday night’s Independence County Budget Committee meeting prior to the quorum court’s regular meeting, and that was the feeling I came away with.

County Judge Robert Griffin said the quorum court is facing two things in this matter: legality and need.

“There’s two reasons. There’s a question of legality that the court determined they can’t discern what to do,” Griffin said. “The second one is we’ve had no substantial information provided that can indicate the volume of work necessary to continue that position.”

This stems from a February quorum court item concerning whether a vacant district court clerk position can be filled or whether the position should be eliminated. The item spurred the court, County Attorney Daniel Haney, and Taylor in a lengthy debate earlier this month on whether the authority lies with the quorum court to take any action allowing Judge Taylor to fill the position. (Click here for more.)

According to information presented by Haney, the quorum court has the authority to alter the budget, but the court cannot authorize the hiring to fill the vacant position.

Ordinance 2021-07, which appeared on February’s agenda and was tabled after a similar discussion, aims to dissolve the position and reappropriate the funds elsewhere within the county budget.

Taylor also didn’t think much of Haney’s opinion on Arkansas law as it relates to hiring a district court clerk. He said it is not true that Arkansas law requires the newly hired clerk be approved by the city council, as the city attorney says.

“That is wrong,” Taylor said at Monday night’s meeting. “I’ve been district judge now for over 16 years. We’ve never had to do that, and none of my predecessors had to do that.”

As far as employee need, Taylor provided information to budget committee members showing, in detail, the work duties of each clerk. He also noted that the fifth clerk position was added by County Judge David Wyatt in 2004, some 17 years ago. A clerk position has not been added since then, indicating that the work of the district court called for another clerk in 2004 and now, 17 years later, the work is now less?

Judge Taylor also said in the last 30-plus years, vacancies have occurred only three times in district court clerk positions. All three were filled due to being previously budgeted. Earlier, Taylor said the position in question has already been budgeted and approved by the budget committee, along with the full court as well.

He said all clerks currently working for district court have served long enough to have earned four weeks of vacation, three personal days, and 12 sick days. Taylor said you have to have enough help to fill in when someone is out.

Judge Taylor also noted that since April of last year, over 30 county employees have been hired by other county departments, yet the district court is the only one that is required to come before the court and explain the need. The district court judge asked: “Why is district court being required to go through this process to simply fill an already budgeted, vacant position when other departments are not?”

Taylor suggested two options as far as acting on the clerk question. One: take no action after which the district court would then act in accordance with the previously-approved 2021 budget and hire someone to fill the deputy clerk’s position. Or option two: approve the district court’s request to move forward without being subjected to further question, and, likewise, so it can fill the position.

County Judge Griffin said the only true revenue directly coming from district court is court costs. The court costs are generated locally when one pays a fine in district court, and all court cost revenue is then sent directly to the State of Arkansas.

Griffin said the last couple of years, Independence County has been allowed to keep just under $120,000 and send the rest to the State. The county judge said that amount is supposed to cover the cost of district court, but it doesn’t even come close.

Griffin said district court costs around $340,000 a year. He said the difference between $120,000 and $340,000 is supplemented or paid out of the local county budget. He added that court costs are local funds charged for the purpose of paying the costs of the district court, but the county is not allowed to keep what is needed to operate. He said that’s why district court expenses need to be scrutinized and kept as low as possible which, he said, seems to be the proper thing to do.

Judge Griffin said he has lobbied the state to allow counties to keep more of the court costs paid by local citizens in order to pay for the operation of the district court. Griffin said Judge Taylor and other district court judges should also go to the legislature and demand change.

When a comprise could not be achieved by Judge Taylor and the budget committee, Judge Griffin signed a prepared County Court Order prohibiting the hire. He said it was based on the law as interpreted by County Attorney Haney.

Also, Judge Griffin corrected Judge Taylor on the number of district court hires (none since 2004). Judge Griffin said one additional clerk was hired around 2006 or 2007, and two more were added in 2008.

As the meeting continued, Judge Taylor corrected Judge Griffin by saying those hires were not adding clerks, but replacing clerks that retired or otherwise left their position.

Taylor said since corrections were being made, he would also correct Judge Griffin on the money that is generated for the county by the district court. He said other fines and costs are collected, outside of general court costs, that usually add up to thousands of more dollars going to the county.

The bottom line is what Judge Griffin said to me this morning. He said he wanted to use this savings to fund a 1.5 percent raise for law enforcement this year, adding this is about cutting waste and helping all.

And then you have Judge Taylor, whose position seems to be this: the county wants to take from the district court a clerk position that has been funded, because of necessity, since 2004, and with that money, fund a small raise for law enforcement.

Taylor noted he was all for law enforcement being paid more, but not at the expense of district court.

As far as the hiring issue, Judge Taylor, said he is exploring the district court’s options.

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