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NWA Editorial: Washington County investigations needed to restore public trust

Investigation necessary to restore public trust by NWA Democrat-Gazette | April 22, 2015 at 1:00 a.m.

Publilius Syrus, the Syrian-born slave brought to Italy in the 1st century B.C. as a slave, had a pretty good handle on the the circumstances from which true leadership typically emerges.

"Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm," he wrote.

What’s the point?

Serious questions about bridge construction in Washington County continue to damage public trust in county government. Answers are necessary even if inconvenient.

Connecting the rather large dots even further, he is suggesting rough seas quickly narrow the number of people aboard a ship who have the skill and nerve to steer it safely through the tumult.

Washington County government's seas have been relatively calm for a long time. While other counties have taken their turns amidst controversy, it's been a while since Washington County has gotten caught up in any serious hint of failure or the possibility of public corruption. That's something to be thankful for. But the waves are crashing over the sides of the vessel in April 2015, and one couldn't be blamed for wondering if there's anyone prepared to guide the county through the storm.

The county is adrift in these troubled waters, the wind out of its sails after revelation that one, and maybe two, county-built bridges failed to meet criteria for safe construction. The Washington County Road Department completed the Harvey Dowell Bridge in 2013 and had begun construction on the Stonewall Bridge. Back in March, County Judge Marilyn Edwards ordered Road Department crews to demolish what they had built at the Stonewall site so the project could be restarted, and she put a 3-ton weight limit on the Harvey Dowell Bridge.

These steps were clear acknowledgement Edwards had seen convincing evidence the construction of the bridges fell short of expectations. For months prior, she had denied construction problems alleged in a lawsuit by a Road Department employee who claims Edwards and others retaliated against him for blowing the whistle.

The situation has created a lot of questions and, so far, few answers regarding who is responsible and why anyone would be motivated to cut corners on the $400,000 bridges. Was it purposeful, and to what end? Or was it ineptitude?

At this point, it seems everyone from Inspector Gadget up has declined to investigate the matter. Edwards eventually asked Fourth Judicial District Prosecutor Matt Durrett to look into what happened. Justice of the Peace Eva Madison, a member of the Quorum Court that funds such bridge projects, asked Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge to launch a probe. Durrett said his initial review found no obvious evidence of a potential criminal case. Rutledge said she is "charged with no oversight regarding a county judge's fulfillment of his or her obligations" in overseeing county roads and bridges.

In other words, until there's evidence of a crime, this is a political problem.

Edwards also on April 14 made a sweeping request that the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department conduct a radar inspection of the Harvey Dowell Bridge as well as inspection of all bridges built in Washington County in the past 20 years. Why 20 years? That would include bridges built under her predecessors, Jerry Hunton (1999-2008) and Charles Johnson (1979-1998).

Edwards' wide-ranging request is a continuation of her defensive stance. Beyond initially denying any problems, her responses have done little to restore confidence. Quorum Court members asked her and a Road Department official to appear at a Finance Committee meeting to discuss budget implications, but neither did. Edwards' initial explanation was that she didn't show because she had a sore throat and the Road Department official instead attended a child's ball game. Then, within a day or two, Edwards told a reporter there was no need to send anyone to that meeting. "I just didn't feel like there was any sense in having a bunch of people asking the same questions," she said.

So which was it, a sore throat or just outright defiance? And these aren't just a "bunch of people." They're the elected members of the Quorum Court who, whether she likes it or not, need some level of satisfaction that they aren't throwing tax dollars away by approving bridge projects during the Marilyn Edwards era.

Anyone can hold the helm in calm seas, we hear.

So the latest news is the Quorum Court has appointed Democrat Madison, an attorney, and County Assessor Russell Hill, a Republican, to investigate and report back. They wisely rejected the notion of adding Edwards' chief of staff, Dan Short, to the investigative team. It was a no-win situation for him, as he's directly involved in the decision-making affecting what the Road Department does and doesn't do.

The bridge fiasco has strained relationships in county government. Democrat Ann Harbison questioned Madison's involvement because she's been a vocal critic of Edwards' on other issues. "Eva has got a certain way she wants this investigation to come out," Harbison said Monday.

That's a serious charge, an attack on Madison's character that demonstrates the withering effects controversy can have on people unprepared for the rough ride. The comment earned Edwards' rebuke, as it should have. And, even if Madison has been a critic over the years, that should lend weight to any potential findings that favor the county judge.

Everyone outside county government has dodged any role in investigating what happened with the bridges, so the Quorum Court is doing what it must to restore some confidence in county operations. Until the public can understand why all this happened, the job of their elected leaders is not complete.

"I'm tired of the bickering," Madison said Monday night. "I'm tired of people having doubts about what we're doing in the county."

Yes, let's call it a sea of doubts. Who will steer Washington County to smoother waters?

Commentary on 04/22/2015

Print Headline: More troubled waters


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