Cave Springs seeks to rehire former city attorney

Posted: March 20, 2017 at 1 a.m.

CAVE SPRINGS -- The city needs a new city attorney to replace Tom Guarino and might hire the lawyer who quit before Guarino.

Cave Springs has been without a city attorney since Guarino quit in early February.

“I wish them luck. They weren’t willing to follow the advice they were given. I felt it would be more helpful to find someone they would listen to.”

Tom Guarino, former Cave Springs city attorney

"I wish them luck," Guarino said Thursday. "They weren't willing to follow the advice they were given. I felt it would be more helpful to find someone they would listen to."

Guarino and the City Council frequently locked horns, with Guarino accusing the council of violating the Freedom of Information Act on several occasions.

Alderwoman Mary Ann Winters accused Guarino of being loyal to Mayor Travis Lee, whom she has had an ongoing dispute with over city spending and the necessity of 10 employees Lee hired since he became mayor two years ago. Guarino and Lee said there was no allegiance, and that Guarino was just interpreting state law and city policy.

Lee and Winters want to rehire R. Justin Eichmann, who resigned as city attorney Aug. 29 because he and Lee differed on what direction the city should take.

"I called Justin Eichmann and asked him to come back, (and) he said he would think about it," Lee said. "I told him I didn't know how important you were and how much you knew how to talk with the council. There's a certain way you have to talk to the council, and Justin knew how to do that."

Eichmann is a lawyer with the Harrington Miller Law Firm in Springdale that specializes in representing small towns and cities in litigation defense and general council.

"They have reached out to me, and I haven't been able to talk back with them yet," Eichmann said. "I was there for quite a long time, and I have a lot of affection for a number of the people there. I haven't decided yet. Everything that has been done has been real informal to this point."

Eichmann told Lee in his resignation letter that he decided to resign after a conversation they had about annexation, referring to a Bentonville move to annex 24 acres from the northern island of Cave Springs. Lee explained in September that Rogers had cut through Cave Springs in 2006, turning the city into two islands.

Lee said he had hired another attorney to fight the annexation because Harrington Miller represents several cities including Bentonville.

Eichmann said the law firm doesn't represent Bentonville and only represents smaller cities, and while his colleagues represented other cities, the only city he represented was Cave Springs.

Lee said on Thursday it was his understanding Eichmann's firm had represented Bentonville at some time. He said that not wanting to cause Eichmann conflict was the same reason he did not include Eichmann in a Cave Springs effort to annex a stretch of county land along Rogers that connects the two sections of Cave Springs. Lee said Eichmann had previously done litigation on behalf of Rogers.

"I was only trying to protect him," Lee said. "I didn't include him because he had ties to Rogers, so I didn't feel it was appropriate to put him in that position. I thought I was doing him a favor, but it backfired. I made a mistake. I should have talked to him about it."

Winters said she has reached out to Eichmann.

"He told me he would get back to me as soon as he could," she said.

A lawyer in the law firm Eichmann works for is representing Kimberly Hutcheson, the city's recorder/treasurer, in her lawsuit against the mayor and City Council, Winters said.

Lee and Hutcheson have been locked in a heated dispute since September when Lee sent Hutcheson home and blocked her from accessing city computer data. Lee said he did so because Hutcheson had mistreated city workers.

"Justin said he needed to make sure that everything would be all clear (and not be a conflict)," Winters said.

Winters offered Guarino the city attorney position in November, and on Thursday she described his tenure as city attorney as an "absolute fiasco."

"He was constantly telling us we were doing illegal stuff," Winters said. "I knew I was doing the things I was supposed to do."

During the Jan. 10 City Council meeting, council members went into executive session to discuss the jobs of 10 employees the council fired a week before. Guarino objected immediately after Alderman Larry Fletcher made the motion to go into executive session, saying it violated the Freedom of Information Act.

Guarino said in January that Winters objected to his findings from his investigation into city spending.

"Alderwoman Winters requested on behalf of the council when I was appointed as city attorney that I investigate the mayor hiring for certain positions and that I review expenditures she claimed were made without council approval," Guarino said. "When I located the minutes of council meetings showing authorization by the council for the positions and expenditures, and reported this to her and the council, she made the accusation."

Eichmann said it's discouraging to see Cave Springs in turmoil.

"I'm very concerned about the city," he said. "In the 10 to 12 years I was there, I never seen anything like that. It's always been a quiet, hardworking place. I've seen these things happen in other cities and I've seen them get through it. The best thing they can do is start mending fences and start gaining people's trust."

Eichmann said when he was the city attorney, he usually worked about 10 hours a week. He said it's too early to say in the event he took the job, if he would work more hours to help the city resolve its issues.

"That's a conversation you have to have with the council and the mayor out in the open," Eichmann said. "We need to figure that out. That's done with every city when you come on board."

Fletcher said he hopes a new city attorney will by hired by April's City Council meeting. He said the city is not taking applications for the position, but would not reject any submitted application.

NW News on 03/20/2017