JP questions handling of suit against county

Posted: October 28, 2017 at 3:37 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE — A court battle over how much authority County Judge Joseph Wood of Washington County has over hiring employees is playing out in the Circuit Court with no input from justices of the peace, irking at least one county official.

“I’ve always been concerned about how the case is handled from the county’s perspective,” said Justice of the Peace Eva Madison, a Democrat representing northeastern Fayetteville.

George Butler filed a class-action lawsuit in April against the county, Wood and several employees in their professional and individual roles. Butler was chief of staff for former County Judge Marilyn Edwards, a Democrat who didn’t run for re-election last year. He also was county attorney for just over 30 years before he retired in 2014.

Wood didn’t follow county policy when he fired and hired department heads, and the money paid to the new employees should be returned to taxpayers, the lawsuit claims.

Jason Owens, who represents the county through the Rainwater Holt and Sexton law firm, did not respond to email and phone messages left at his office Thursday and Friday.

Madison’s questions come as county justices of the peace consider a $68 million budget with a $5 million gap between revenue and expected expenditures next year. Justices of the peace are considering cuts, a tax increase or redistributing current tax revenue.

A budget must be approved by Dec. 31.

Madison, chairman of the county budget committee, said she wants to know how much money Butler’s lawsuit might cost the county, whether the county attorney should report to Wood — who is being sued as county judge and individually — and whether the firm representing the county is acting without talking with its clients.

The Rainwater firm is unresponsive, and little information is coming from Wood’s office, Madison said. County Attorney Brian Lester said in email that he had no update on the lawsuit or any information on Madison’s concerns.

In addition to Wood, the lawsuit names Lester; Carl Gales, Wood’s chief of staff; Julie Harris, executive assistant to the county judge; Jim Kimbrough, Planning Department director; Sharon Lloyd, grant administrator; Dwight Gonzales, building and grounds director; and Josh Medina, county veterans services officer. All were hired by Wood this year.

Butler said in his lawsuit that the six department heads should return taxpayer money paid to them by the county because they were hired without following Quorum Court-approved employee policies. The combined annual salaries budgeted for the six is $377,458, according to documents released earlier this year.

Attorneys for the employees and the county have denied Butler’s allegations in court filings. Owens filed a motion to dismiss the case Oct. 2. A hearing on that motion likely will be delayed until after Nov. 3, court records show. No trial date has been set, said Jim Lingle, attorney for Butler.

Madison asked Owens and Mike Rainwater, also with the Rainwater firm, to attend a county budget committee meeting to answer questions. Rainwater declined, Madison said, and the firm also never responded to questions she sent Sept. 7.

Madison provided the emails she sent to Owens, Rainwater and Chris Villines, executive director of the Association of Arkansas Counties. The association funds the county’s defense.

“I think it may be that the firm is not communicating with anyone,” Madison wrote to Villines on Sept. 19. “There are some serious conflicts of interest in the George Butler case, and I am concerned the Rainwater firm doesn’t appreciate them. They certainly don’t want to answer my questions about them.”

Association spokesman Christy Smith said Madison’s email went to a spam folder. Villines did not find them or respond to Madison until Friday, Smith said. He said he would look into the matter, she said.

Madison said justices of the peace should be concerned. The association notified Washington County officials in August that its risk management fund may not cover a judgment against Washington County. So far, the Quorum Court has no cost estimate on its possible liability, Madison said.