Earle being sued over ‘fraudulent’ 2016 budget
Man files class action suit of behalf of city’s taxpayers
An Earle resident is suing the city claiming it passed an illegal budget.
Frederick Pitchford filed a class action suit in circuit court on Jan. 11 seeking an injunction against the city for illegal exaction.
Pitchford claims in his suit that the budget passed on Dec. 28 was “fraudulent” and that the city council “knowingly conspired” to cause the illegal exaction by removing $60,000 from other accounts to balance the budget.
“Are you aware that the constitution of Arkansas gives me certain rights as a taxpayer to come after you if you fail to do your duty under the law if you do something fraudulent,” Pitchford asked the city council.”
“Well you’ve done it,” Councilwoman Jimmie Barham joked.
Pitchford said Jones failed to submit a budget to the council on or before Dec. 1 as required by law, then conspired with the city council to vote to pre-approve the budget, which was passed on Dec. 28.
Arkansas Municipal League handbook states that a mayor is required to prepare and submit a budget to the city council on or before Dec. 1. The council, in turn, is required to enact a budget before Feb. 1.
“She never submitted a budget,” Pitchford said.
“She can’t touch the budget. So by participating in preparing the budget is a conspiracy. By you all conspiring together to put that budget together is a conspiracy.”
The city held budget hearings on Dec. 21, 22, 23, and 28.
Pitchford, who attended the meetings, claims the city council discussed the need to make $60,000 in cuts to the budget. Among the suggestions was to cut the assistant clerk position and two of three full time positions in the police department.
Pitchford said he raised his hand and was given permission to speak at the Dec. 22 budget hearing and suggested Jones cut the mayor’s assistant position.
However, according to the lawsuit, none of the proposed cuts were made and Pitchford claims Jones got the council to pre-approve the budget.
“Jones got everything she wanted,” according to the lawsuit.
Pitchford also alleges that the council members illegally met on Dec. 23, and that his Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of City Clerk Cynthia Conner’s notes and adding machine tape was denied.
Pitchford also claims in the lawsuit that Jones and city attorney Davis Loftin conspired to deny him a right to speak before the budget was adopted. “The taxpayers have suffered repeated acts of illegal exaction that is not authorized and some that is contrary to Supreme Court of Arkansas’s opinion,” Pitchford alleges in the lawsuit.
Six out of eight councilmembers agreed to tax pay cuts which saved the city $24,000. The city council also removed funding to attend this year’s Municipal League meeting, which trimmed about $6,000 from the budget.
The council also approved requiring employees to pay 25 percent of their insurance premiums. In the past, the city had paid 100 percent of the premium costs.
The cuts resulted in a savings of about $36,000.
Jones also did not hire an assistant. The city already had a part-time administrative assistant/dispatcher position, which was given additional hours.
The city did cash in a $50,000 certificate of deposit to pay its bills for the rest of the year. However, many city council’s statewide pass a supplemental spending measure at the end of the year to pay bills from December and January which are not a part of 2016 budget, and is also included in the Municipal League handbook.
Conner said she did not give Pitchford the tape from the adding machine because that is not something she would normally keep, and did not take minutes at one of the budget meetings because a quorum was not present.
Pitchford also said certain actions by Jones and the failure of the city council to stop her from doing so have also cost the taxpayers money.
He cited Jones’s illegal use of a police vehicle as her personal vehicle which got the city banned from applying for federal justice assistance grants for two years.
“You all should have nipped that in the bud,” Pitchford said. “But you didn’t. You let it go on. We were embarrassed in public.”
Pitchford also said Jones’s decision to fire former Police Chief Tyrone Smith and the council’s failure to reinstate him will cost taxpayers money to defend a lawsuit.
Smith was suspended by Jones in August for 30 days pending the outcome of charges against him for harassment. The case has since been dismissed.
Smith claims Jones knew about the case and in reality suspended him because he fired Officer Fitzgerald Couch for sleeping on the job.
A motion to reinstate Smith failed on a 4-3-1 vote.
“We’re going to lose that in court,” Pitchford said.
“And we’re going to be out lots of money on that. You had the authority to nip that in the bud. But you didn’t. I don’t know what reason you didn’t.”
Pitchford said Jones also acted illegally by cutting employee salaries.
Jones on her own demoted road supervisor Nemi Matthews, who was making $14.81 an hour to $10 an hour, and promoted Willie Dyson who was earning $10.25 to $11 an hour.
Jones also reduced the hours and salary of assistant clerk Lawanda Powell from 40 hours to 20 hours and cut her pay from $10.88 to $9 an hour, and also reduced the pay of Gwen Steele in the police department from $11 an hour to $9 an hour.
Jones claimed the cuts would save the city $40,000 and that she did not have to ask the council’s approval to amend the budget to reflect the changes.
“That was something you could have nipped in the bud,” Pitchford said. “But you didn’t question it.”
Lastly, Pitchford said Jones also wrongfully terminated
Lee Johnson’s contract.
Johnson was hired for $4,000 to service and maintain the city’s fleet of vehicles, but was subsequently fired by Jones after a new Dodge Charger police car blew an engine rod because it didn’t have oil in it.
“He can not be terminated the way he was terminated because it was an open contract,” Pitchford said.
“We’re going to lose that in court.”
Neither Jones nor any member of the city council had any comment about the lawsuit.
Pitchford said he filed the suit as a class action on behalf of the tax payers of Earle.
“I will see you all in court,” Pitchford said.
By Mark Randall