The Mayor of Letona, Mr. Sherrel Bennett, called me a little upset after reading Judge Parish’s letter last week outlining how Judge Mike Lincoln has been paving roads inside incorporated cities–a claim that everyone seems to agree on. The disagreement seems to come when we start discussing who is paying for these improvements: Mr. Parish says the county is paying for the improvements, at the expense of all county taxpayers. Mr. Bennett says the city reimbursed the county.
I made a follow-up call to Mr. Parish after talking to Mr. Bennett. He said whether or not the city pays for the improvements is irrelevant, contending that it is illegal for the county to essentially act as a contractor and do jobs-for-hire for cities–something I suspect local contractors might be a little upset about, whether it is legal or not.
Now, I do not pretend to have the answer to these legal questions. It is something I have intended to research but have not had time. Perhaps one of our legal-minded readers can weigh in. But I did tell Mr. Bennett that I would allow him to give his side of the story if he would submit something in writing. Below is the text of his letter. Continue reading
Here’s a look at our top stories from last week:
- Examining Judge Lincoln’s ‘Transparency’ Record. Judge Lincoln recently said that his office has ‘always fully complied with Arkansas’ FOI law.’ We beg to differ.
- Why I Can’t Support White County Judge Lincoln. Community leader Scott Biddle weighs in on Judge Lincoln’s recording in light of the upcoming primary.
- Audio: New Ads In White County Focus On Judge Lincoln’s Record. Two new ads have hit the airwaves in White County. One ad highlights Judge Mike Lincoln’s ethics violation. The other focuses on his OEM director’s misuse of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
Two new ads are hitting the airwaves in White County on Friday, in lieu of the upcoming primary election on May 22nd.
Hear the ads for yourself:
OEM credit card:
Before we go too far, let me state all of the following for the record: I voted for Michael Lincoln in 2006 and again in 2008.
When his opponent in 2006 complained about losing, I wrote a letter to the editor of The Daily Citizen defending Judge Lincoln. I am in no way opposed to the man personally, but he began making policy related decisions in 2009 that were questionable at best and contemptible in some instances, and in 2010 I voted against him.
Let’s look at some of the policy decisions that Judge Lincoln has made:
In 2009 & 2010, Judge Lincoln supported Belinda LaForce’s efforts to impose an A&P tax and A&P commission on the city of Searcy without voter approval. Judge Lincoln has recently complained about city taxes being terrible because county residents pay them while only the city gets to spend the money. This is a different tune than the one he sang just two short years ago.
Judge Lincoln’s support of a tax in the city of Searcy was so strong that when a very peaceful TEA party protest was held at the courthouse square in Searcy on April 5, 2010 (attended by our current Lieutenant Governor as well as several other candidates for statewide offices), Judge Lincoln called both the Searcy police and the White County Sheriff’s office and attempted to convince them to remove the protestors. Continue reading
Mike Lincoln, currently serving as White County Judge, stated in his recent debate appearance that he always fully complied with Arkansas’ FOI law and that our county government was a “beautiful system” with “so much accountability” and lots of transparency. We beg to differ.
As questions were swirling around the behavior of a county employee, Tamara Jenkins, The Patriot decided to do a little research into the matter ourselves. We availed ourselves of the public’s greatest tool, the Freedom of Information Act, to request electronic copies of all of Ms. Jenkins emails from January 2009 through November 2011. What followed was extremely disappointing.
Before we go into the details of what transpired, let’s examine our rights under the FOIA. Arkansas 25-19-105 says the following:
- “A citizen may make a request to the custodian to inspect, copy, or receive copies of public records.”
- “The request may be made in person, by telephone, by mail, by facsimile transmission, by electronic mail, or by other electronic means provided by the custodian.”
- “If the person to whom the request is directed is not the custodian of the records, the person shall so notify the requester and identify the custodian, if known to or readily ascertainable by the person.”
- “A citizen may request a copy of a public record in any medium in which the record is readily available or in any format to which it is readily convertible with the custodian’s existing software.”
- “Except as provided in § 25-19-109 or by law, any fee for copies shall not exceed the actual costs of reproduction, including the costs of the medium of reproduction, supplies, equipment, and maintenance, but not including existing agency personnel time associated with searching for, retrieving, reviewing, or copying the records.”
We point all of these out because we sent our requests via email (as specifically allowed under the second bullet above) and we requested electronic copies of emails (as permitted by the fourth bullet point above) and they are only allowed to charge for “actual costs of reproduction”, not personnel time (under the fifth bullet point).
We sent a request to the judge’s office on November 17th, 2011 asking for “electronic copies” of all “Email correspondence between the White County Judge & Tamara Jenkins from January 2009 through November 17, 2011.” And we were told “There is no e-mail correspondence to or from Tamara Jenkins on Judge Lincoln’s computer.” We responded “So you’re saying there has been no email correspondence between the judge and miss Jenkins in the last 2 years?” The Judge’s office replied that they had amazingly suddenly found 43 emails that Ms. Jenkins had forwarded to the judge, but that there was still no correspondence between the two and that we should stop by their office and pay for the physical copies they would provide us. We then decided to take a different approach since the judge’s office seemed intent on ignoring state law.
We sent a request to Ms. Jenkins herself on November 21, 2011 asking for “All emails sent from your county email address from January 2009 to November 21, 2011.” She replied that “All FOI’s for this office must go through the White County Judge’s Office.” And we were back to the judge’s office.
At this point, we cited the specific, pertinent portions of the actual law (and the portions listed above) to the county, and they had an attorney from Little Rock contact us. After we told the attorney our specific request and informed him that we knew our rights under state law, we were informed that they were gathering the emails but would be redacting “sensitive” information as allowed by law (information like SSN, DOB, etc.). Even with this, the records are supposed to be ready in no more than 3 business days.
The records were finally “ready” on November 28th. “Ready” meant that they had printed several off so they could black out sensitive information with markers instead of following the common sense approach of providing electronic files where an actual SSN is replaced with ***-**-**** and they told us that we would have to pay for these physical copies. We declined and asked for them in the same electronic format we had requested since our initial request, and they finally consented. After weeks of wrangling, we finally had received the emails from Ms. Jenkins, or so we thought.
We began sifting through the hundreds of emails that had been provided, and we soon found some very disturbing things. First of all, we noticed that there was an amazingly sparse amount of email (particularly sent items) for a time period beginning May 16th, 2010. Over the next nine months, Ms. Jenkins records that were turned over per our FOI request indicate she had sent a grand total of five emails and that during the months of June, August, September, December, and January she had not sent any emails. For the nine months that followed that, she allegedly only sent four emails. During the same time periods, she allegedly only received six and four emails respectively. Considering that every other month she provided emails for before that averaged several dozen emails sent per month, this raised our level of curiosity considerably. How can you prove the existence of something that someone claims doesn’t exist? Well, there are a couple of ways.
First of all, the 43 emails that we had previously been told were sent from Ms. Jenkins to the county judge weren’t there. Secondly, we decided to see if we could find another copy of the emails elsewhere. With email, it is a little easier. There are always two parties involved, so we decided to contact some of her frequent correspondents (senders/recipients of her other emails) who are also employed with various government agencies. The judge’s office was ruled out as they had already blatantly ignored the FOIA to avoid providing us with access to public records. An examination of the emails we did receive revealed several other individuals who were employed at state agencies, so we contacted them with FOI requests. These folks should be applauded because they actually complied with the FOIA, perhaps because they had nothing to hide in their emails. We found some interesting things.
The individuals at the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management turned over dozens of emails from Tamara Jenkins that occurred during the time period in question and were sent by Ms. Jenkins to individuals working at the department. The emails in question address mundane things, and they are sent from the same address from which Ms. Jenkins other emails (ostensibly all covered by FOI) are sent. Furthermore, there are many emails that these individuals sent to Ms. Jenkins which were also not included in the response to our FOI request. All of this begs the question:
What happened to Ms. Jenkins’ email? Why is it that dozens of sent and received items mysteriously disappeared and were not passed on to us in response to our FOI request?
If some cataclysmic event had occurred, you would hardly expect to find two messages from February, one message from November, two messages from October etc. left standing amid the wreckage. Why is it that the emails appear to have been systematically purged or withheld dating back to May 2010, which is the time period when much questionable behavior was occurring within Ms. Jenkins’ office?
Is it possible to have any confidence in the transparency of our county government when they refuse to comply with the FOI law for days and weeks before finally turning over incomplete records that have the appearance of an intentional cover-up? According to everyone involved, all these FOI requests were funneled through the county judge’s office, per instructions from the county judge’s office.
The citizens of White County need to ask why their judge is restricting access to public records and they need to demand a judge who believes that the government belongs to the people and should be accountable to the people it represents.
We first broke the news of White County JP Bud Osborn’s arrest for drunk driving back at Thanksgiving last fall. Then the paper followed our lead and picked up on it. It quickly became statewide news.
Then Osborn told the paper he ‘wasn’t highly intoxicated,’ maintaining that he was innocent.
And Judge Lincoln said he needed ‘more information’ before making a comment, and he ‘hoped all county officials would adhere to the law.’ He also ‘wasn’t sure’ if Osborn’s actions could lead to removal from office.
Then, when county officials were incredibly hesitant to call for Osborn’s resignation, I did.
Osborn told the paper on December 12, 2011 “I’m not guilty.” He reiterated that he would not resign, and Judge Lincoln remained silent. His primary opponent, Bill Haynie, called on Osborn to vacate his position.
Three JPs–Ed Land, Kenneth Horton, & Bobby Quattlebaum–said Osborn was ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and wouldn’t call for his resignation until after his hearing on January 5th.
January 5th came and Osborn plead ‘not guilty.’ His attorney said his client ‘may or may not have a case.’
And now, we know the answer was ‘may not.’
According to the paper, Osborn plead guilty at a hearing this week. His attorney, Mark Derrick, said he ‘had to enter a plea of not guilty in order to have time to look at the police reports and the case file.’ His attorney also says that Osborn knew he was guilty all along:
“He said he had some words with the people where he was at that day and then he got upset and left,” Derrick said. “He said, ‘I knew better. I screwed up. That’s it. I’ll admit to it.’”
So now that ‘we have more information,’ Judge Lincoln is going to stand up and lead, right? He’s going to call for Osborn’s resignation or removal from the court for breaking the law, right? Because Judge Lincoln believes in the rule of law, right?
Wrong. Lincoln has declined, once again, to call for Osborn’s removal from the court, even after Osborn has now been convicted, punting the issue to the quorum court:
“I guess we’ll wait to see what the Quorum Court’s reaction will be.”
Oh, how bold!
Now, Lincoln will tell you, “well, the court or the district court are the only ones that can remove him from office.’ But this doesn’t stop Lincoln from putting pressure on them–which he’s always happy to do when it involves a political favor–or from calling on Osborn to resign.
A county official has been convicted of a crime that could’ve resulted in a tragic death and Judge Lincoln still says “we’ll just have to wait and see what happens!” This is beyond a lack of leadership–this is just bad politics. I don’t want to give the judge any free campaign advice here, but good grief. If there was ever a time to take a stand for ethical, lawful government and defend the integrity of the county government, THIS IS IT. But Judge Lincoln once again fails to lead. He fails to stand up for integrity, something he was once thought to represent.
It’s time for the voters of White County to demand ethical conduct & leadership from their elected officials. Early voting starts Monday.
I posted a story this morning that was originally titled “Searcy Mayor, White County Judge Support Diesel Tax Increase.” Then a reader so politely commented that the diesel tax wasn’t going to be on the ballot in November. So I updated the story to let everyone know that I was looking into it and that I may have made a mistake.
Here’s what I’ve learned after talking to a fellow Arkansas blogger & a contact in the Secretary of State’s office:
The Diesel Tax, HB 1898, may or may not be on the November ballot. Governor Beebe could still call a special election if he chooses to, although it appears unlikely. However, the Diesel Tax is no longer relevant to this discussion because the tax that Judge Lincoln & Searcy Mayor Morris are supporting is Issue 1, or the ‘Highway Tax.’ It is a general sales & use tax that would impose a half -percent tax on all sales in the state, not just diesel, according to the SOS’s office. Which is kind of worse, in my opinion.
Sorry for identifying the wrong tax, but it doesn’t change the focal point of my article: Judge Lincoln is supporting a tax hike while telling White County voters that the county desperately needs the money. These claims are provably false, as county revenues have been higher than ever under Judge Lincoln’s reign.
Read the full story here.