A proposal to allow Union County Judge Mike Loftin to enter into service agreements on behalf of the county with a business owned by one of his relatives was tabled after some discussion last week.
During a regular meeting of the Union County Quorum Court on Nov. 18, Justices of the Peace considered an ordinance that would have allowed Loftin to enter into "agreements and contracts with Loftin Lawncare & Landscaping as are necessary to provide to the County the continuing lawncare service as previously provided by Hilyard Lawn Service, LLC."
Loftin Lawncare & Landscaping is owned by Mike Loftin's relative, Brandon Loftin.
"The company that was maintaining the courthouse lawn, the Roberds building and the health department, all of those grounds out there, retired and sold out to Brandon Loftin, who is related to the county judge, and we need to adopt this ordinance so that we all recognize the fact that part of the county judge's family is being hired to do this work," said District 1 JP Mike Dumas.
According to the proposed ordinance, Ray Hilyard formerly owned Hilyard Lawn Service, LLC, which provided lawn care services at the Union County Courthouse, Union County Local Health Unit and the Roberds building, which houses the county prosecutor's office.
John Thomas Shepherd, who was present at last week's Quorum Court meeting as legal counsel, suggested that the county draft a contract outlining the terms of the lawn care services Loftin Lawncare & Landscaping is to provide.
"I understand this is kind of a unique situation, because the judge's family has purchased a business the county previously contracted with. I think this can happen, but in my opinion, we need to do things a little bit different than what is proposed in this ordinance," Shepherd said.
The proposed ordinance didn't include the cost the county would pay for Loftin Lawncare's services or a time period the company would be providing services for.
"The ordinance as drafted is authorizing the judge, basically giving him the authority to continue on in this relationship," Shepherd said. "It's my understanding that the amount that has historically been paid (for lawn care services) has been below the bidding threshold, so that being the case, even more so (reason) that there be a written contract setting forth specific terms this body (the Quorum Court) then approves and authorizes the judge to enter into that agreement for a limited time and then be reviewed, and if it's going to be continued, then this body can vote to approve it."
Mike Loftin confirmed that the services Hilyard provided did cost less than the county's bidding threshold, also noting that the services vary from year to year.
"The scope of work changes depending on what's going on. He plants flowers in the spring, he plants flowers in the fall, he's planted -- what do we have out there now? -- mums now. Pretty soon, they'll come up and pansies will go in for the winter," he said. "So it's not a rate you can say (for example), $1,000 a month, whatever, because it changes."
District 3 JP Greg Harrison pointed out that the county also recently became responsible for maintaining the planters on and around the courthouse lawn, noting that private businesses have to maintain the planters around their storefronts as well.
"I get that it's going to be tough. I think with the conflict issues that it's in everyone's - to everyone's benefit and out of an abundance of caution, to try to limit the relationship in a written document this body approves," Shepherd reiterated.
Loftin said he could find out the cost of materials for the lawn care services expected at the county properties Loftin Lawncare would serve, plus the cost of labor and the time frame for performing the lawn care services, and formulate an idea of the cost of the services for a contract.
"Not that I think the judge is going to do anything wrong, but with this ordinance, however much money can be paid to this lawn care service to do the lawn care and he's (the county judge) got the authority to do it. In a written document, you can have the labor costs plus costs of materials (and) you've got something in writing limiting and also putting a time frame on the agreement where it can be up for review," Shepherd said. "If I was the judge, I'd think it's the best thing for him, and certainly I think it's the best thing for this body."
JPs agreed unanimously to table the proposed ordinance.
Loftin said the only lawn work left for 2021 is replacing the mums currently planted at the courthouse with pansies, which he said Hilyard already had on order at Henley Feed when he retired. He said a contract for lawn care services could be drafted for JPs approval by Jan. 1, 2022, but asked for permission to pay Loftin Lawncare to plant the pansies for the winter season before this year ends.
District 11 JP Ross Burton moved to allow Loftin to pay for the pansies, dubbing it "the pansy agreement," and JPs agreed unanimously in a voice vote to authorize that payment.