El Dorado News

Friday
February 23, 2018
El Dorado News Times

Tax collector, Quorum Court at odds over background checks

New ordinance leads court members to threaten to withhold paychecks to those who don’t comply

By Kaitlyn Rigdon
This article was published October 20, 2017 at 5:00 a.m.

A new ordinance requiring all Union County employees and officials to consent to background checks caused a disagreement between the Quorum Court and one county department that called the move “unconstitutional.”

In September, the Quorum Court passed an ordinance that requires all county employees and officials to consent to background checks. By Thursday, all employees and officials turned in their consent forms - all except for employees of the county Tax Collector’s office.

The ordinance was passed after members of the Quorum Court discussed bonding for county employees with attorneys Gary Burbank and Burt Newell at the September meeting. According to meeting minutes, “to assure that Fidelity Bond coverage of Union County remains in force and effect, criminal background checks should be required to all current, future county employees and officials who may handle or be capable of transferring county funds or assets.”

At the Quorum Court meeting Thursday, county Tax Collector Paula Beard sought an attorney to go over the ordinance, saying, “I see holes all in this ordinance” and describing it as “a dishonest act.” She also objected to County Judge Mike Loftin receiving all of the background checks and suggested they instead go to a committee.

The Tax Collector’s office had previously sent a letter to the Quorum Court members listing their concerns.

“This ordinance needs to be rescinded,” Beard said. “It goes against the Arkansas State Constitution Amendment 55.”

Amendment 55 was passed in 1974 and revised some of the procedures for county government, including the powers of the Quorum Court.

Beard said her underlying issue with the ordinance was the wording used in the letter sent out by the judge.

“The judge’s original letter said if you do not (comply), you will be terminated,” Beard said. “That is illegal. … The judge cannot fire or hire any offices except the employees that he has.”

Justice Johnny Burson said while the court could not fire them, they could stop issuing paychecks to those who did not comply with the checks.

The court then passed a resolution stating that those who refuse to sign are jeopardizing the county’s fidelity bond coverage and would not be issued a paycheck effective Friday. The resolution was drawn up by Burbank and approved by Newell and John Thomas Shepherd, county prosecuting attorney, Loftin said.

Justice Cliff Preston was the only one to vote against the resolution, saying “I’m going to vote no because if they come to work, we need to pay them. But I do understand.”

Justice Greg Harrison questioned why Beard would oppose such a move to begin with.

“As an elected official, I mean we’re all elected officials here, don’t you think that for the benefit of our taxpayers that we give full transparent disclosure as far as a background check of any employees?” Harrison said.

Conor Gleason, executive administrator for the Tax Collector’s office, said in a message on social media to a News-Times reporter that the staff does not have an issue with the checks themselves, but “our legal counsel has emphatically determined Ordinance 1457 to be unconstitutional.”

“We are very disappointed that instead of amending the unconstitutional ordinance, it was only reinforced, with a resolution, that also appears to be in violation of the Arkansas constitution,” Gleason said.

Justice Carolyn Jones said the county was trying to fulfill its obligations with the new ordinance, adding, “The very office that’s handling the money is the office that doesn’t want to do this. I just find it completely ironic.”

Beard said the Tax Collector’s office has been thoroughly audited and the results speak for themselves.

“We’re clean,” she said. “We don’t have anything to hide.”

By 5 p.m. Thursday, everyone in the office had turned in forms agreeing to the background checks except for Gleason.

“I anticipate complying with the request for a background check when I feel assured that I will be complying with a constitutional ordinance,” Gleason said. “I recommended to my colleagues to go ahead and sign the consent form, as many of them do not have the luxury of being able to support their families without a paycheck.”

Kaitlyn Rigdon can be reached at 870-862-6611 or krigdon@eldoradonews.com.

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