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City still without 2021 budget a month after treasurer's firing

by Tia Lyons | April 7, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

The first quarter of the year has come and gone and the city of El Dorado still does not have a 2021 budget or a balanced budget for 2020.

March 31 not only marked the end of Q1 but exactly three weeks since the City Council, with a majority 6 - 2 vote, effectively dismissed former City Treasurer Trena Dean, capping off a tenure that ended as rockily as it began, nine months to the day after Dean officially moved into the city treasurer’s office.

For months, particularly when 2021 city budget talks began last fall, council members voiced frustration with slow progress from the treasurer’s office to supply them with financial reports and drafts to pass a 2021 budget and round out the city’s financial statements for 2020.

Some El Dorado City Council members said they had also begun receiving calls and complaints that some of the city’s bills were not being paid and that some requests for financial statements were not being met.

Various city departments, boards, commissions and other groups reported similar experiences.

Some said projects, operations and plans for 2021 were on hold because of the lack of a city budget, year-end numbers from 2020 and a failure by the treasurer’s office to promptly respond to requests for financial statements.

Earlier this year, Dean and city council members said they were not comfortable approving a 2021 budget without a balanced 2020 budget in hand.

When it became apparent that a 2021 budget draft would not be ready for a vote by Feb. 1, as prescribed by state law, the council agreed on Feb. 4 to continue operating under the 2020 budget.

At the time, Council Member and Finance Committee Chairman Vance Williamson said Dean had encountered several accounting issues in reconciling the city budget, noting that some of the issues dated back a number of years prior to Dean’s hiring in 2020.

He said the council had not received a monthly financial report since November of 2020.

Williamson also said then that Dean expected to have a 2021 budget draft in early February, noting that budget drafts she had previously provided contained errors.

Dean later said she was not given clear guidance and direction on the city’s budgeting process and that she had received multiple requests from council members to amend 2021 budget drafts as budget talks pressed on last fall.

When the issue persisted into late February, word reached the Arkansas Municipal League, who scheduled a meeting with city officials on March 10.

During that meeting, council members, Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer, Dean and at least one audience member aired out grievances and tensions, many of which extended beyond city budgetary matters and had been brewing over the past two years.

Arkansas Municipal League attorneys acted as mediators and by the end of the meeting, AML legal counsel Lanny Richmond urged city officials to adopt a 2021 budget as soon as possible, reiterating advice he had doled out at the start of the meeting.

Also, Dean told council members then that she could finish reconciling bank statements and have end-of-year, 2020 budget numbers and a 2021 budget draft prepared within two weeks.

Council members seemed amenable to the anticipated completion date.

However, the two-hour meeting served as a precursor to what transpired the following day.

City officials gathered March 11 for an El Dorado Water and Public Works Board meeting and a specially-called Finance Committee meeting.

After wrapping up the EWPWB meeting, the city council called the Finance Committee meeting to order and immediately went into executive session.

Williamson initially announced that the purpose of the executive session was to discuss ongoing issues in the treasurer’s office — which does not expressly fit the purposes of executive sessions, as outlined in the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Executive sessions are permitted for the consideration of employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplinary action or resignation of any public officer or employee, according to state law.

The specific purpose of an executive session must be announced before the session commences.

When pressed by former Mayor Frank Hash about the purpose of the executive session, Williamson said the Finance Committee planned to discuss “the employment with the treasurer’s office.”

Dean, who was present, was not called into the executive session.

After nearly an hour and a half, Finance Committee members reconvened in regular session and extended to Dean the option to resign or be dismissed from her position as city treasurer.

Dean was not allowed to speak during the meeting, though she had addressed issues and concerns about the treasurer’s office the previous day and during an El Dorado City Council meeting Feb. 25

She did not tender a resignation.

Council members Willie McGhee and Andre Rucks opposed the move, saying that the council did not provide Dean with adequate assistance to sort out the city’s financial records and put together a city budget.

McGhee also acknowledged that he was not previously aware of some of the issues that were discussed during the executive session.

He said council members who had knowledge about such matters should have informed other city officials sooner so the council could have taken steps to resolve the problems.

Rucks contended that the council “set (Dean) up to fail” and deemed her ouster an example of “structural racism and white supremacy,” charges he has previously leveled at his fellow council members.

Rucks and McGhee are Black. The six other members of the city council — Williamson, Mike Rice, Billy Blann, Judy Ward, Paul Choate and Dianne Hammond — are white.

“I will respond to that. This is not personal against anybody. This is a pure fact that we’ve got to take care of city business,” Williamson said.

Williamson also said that he had reached out to local certified public accounting firm Emrich and Scroggins, LLC, to untangle the city’s books.

The firm went to work the following week and per an update that was given March 31, the CPAs have an extensive amount of work to do in the city treasurer’s office.

The city has now gone without a treasurer/financial officer for a month and Williamson has said that the council will hold off on hiring a new treasurer until Emrich and Scroggins sifts through and updates the city’s finances.

A rocky start

Dean was appointed to the city treasurer’s office on June 10, 2020, after having served as city collector since late 2019.

She was hired to fill a vacancy that was left when longtime City Collector Bonnie McWilliams retired.

The process to transfer Dean to the treasurer’s office last May did not go smoothly.

Her predecessor was terminated May 20, 2020, and when Smith-Creer presented Dean as the preferred candidate for the job, city council members pointed to a 2004 ordinance — Ordinance 1686 — that required a majority vote from the council to appoint the city treasurer after duly considering the candidate’s qualifications.

Smith-Creer then called a special meeting May 29, 2020, for the council to “specifically and exclusively” vote on Dean’s qualifications for the city treasurer’s position.

The mayor cited Dean’s extensive educational and professional background in accounting and finance and her familiarization with the city’s accounting software system, which had recently been installed.

A motion by McGhee to appoint Dean to the treasurer’s position died due to the lack of a second.

A lengthy discussed ensued after the meeting was adjourned and reconvened minutes later.

Smith-Creer and Pierce Moore — who initially served as the mayor’s administrative assistant and was later hired for the then-newly created position of director of human resources for the city — noted that Ordinance 1686 conflicted with hiring policies in the city’s employee handbook.

For instance, the handbook gives the mayor the authority to “employ all (city) personnel and … delegate this authority to appropriate supervisory staff.”

Additionally, the handbook allows for city employees to be given priority for job openings within the city and for vacancies to be filled from within, whenever possible.

At the time, Smith-Creer pointed out that Ordinance 1686 was not followed when Dean’s immediate predecessor, Bonnie Wyles, was hired, a point she would reiterate after Dean was let go on June 10.

Wyles had served as city treasurer for nearly a decade.

During a regular council meeting Feb. 4, Smith-Creer asked Hash about the process by which Wyles was hired.

Hash said Wyles was hired in the midst of “an emergency situation,” adding that Wyles’s immediate predecessor and daughter, Crystal Haynes, received another job offer shortly after he took office in 2011 for the first of two, four-year mayoral terms.

Haynes only had a short time to respond to the job offer, he said.

“It was an emergency in terms of time and finding someone who was qualified and could work within the time that we had to make the transition,” Hash said.

Around the same time, the city’s accounts payable clerk also resigned.

“So, we had a double whammy going. The accounts payable clerk quit and the treasurer moved out and we hired (former accounts payable clerk Sharon Tucker) and Mrs. Wyles for those positions,” Hash later told the News-Times.

He said a few other candidates were interviewed for the city treasurer’s job and Wyles seemed the logical choice, adding that she had served as bookkeeper/treasurer for a local child-care facility and Haynes was readily available to train Wyles on the city’s accounting software system, which was then Incode.

“Normally, the council should formally approve the mayor’s decision on that sort of a deal but it never became an issue,” Hash said. “They had the opportunity to object to my decision but they never did and there was no reason to object to it. She did an excellent job.”

He also said council members were able to closely monitor operations when Wyles assumed the treasurer’s duties.

“Probably, more than anyone would, in fact. They were on these other commissions and they monitored the process,” Hash said.

For example, he said Council Member Dianne Hammond, who has served on several city boards and commissions and is the former chairman of the Finance Committee, worked closely with Wyles.

As the years progressed, council members began complaining about issues they said were cropping up in the city treasurer’s office, including errors in financial statements, the frequency with which regular financial reports were submitted and Wyles’s absence from some Finance Committee meetings.

McGhee noted that some of the issues mirrored concerns that were cited during Dean’s tenure as city treasurer.

“I’m not saying Ms. Dean didn’t have any faults but we had been dealing with some of the same stuff in that treasurer’s office before she was hired and we let it go on for years,” he said.

“After we let Bonnie Wyles go, we should have had Emrich and Scroggins come in and straighten the books out before we hired Trena Dean and let her start with a clean slate,” McGhee continued.

When asked last May about the decision to let Wyles go, Smith-Creer said some duties “were not being handled” in the treasurer’s office and she declined to comment further on the personnel matter.

‘… the perfect storm …’

Almost two weeks after that specially-called meeting on May 29, 2020, the city council approved Smith-Creer’s recommendation to hire Dean.

“We’ve had the perfect storm and this is not a good time to be without a city treasurer,” Williamson said at the time, referring to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which was heading into its second wave.

Several months later, after a series of Finance Committee meetings were held to discuss the 2021 budget, “ongoing issues in the treasurer’s office” and other budgetary issues, the council voted to amend several city ordinances.

Two new ordinances, 1884 and 1885, that were adopted Dec. 10, 2020, placed the treasurer’s office, the Department of Public Works and the El Dorado Water Utilities under the direct supervision of the city council.

With Ordinance 1885, the council retains the power to appoint a city treasurer and now has “the sole power to manage, correct and dismiss” the treasurer.

March 31 was the first time the council used its “sole power” to make a decision regarding the treasurer’s office.

Editor's note: Due to the extensive nature of the issue, this is the first in a series of stories regarding the state of the city's finances.

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