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story.lead_photo.caption City Clerk Denise Pearce flips through a stack of petitions Friday at Springdale City Hall. A group has gathered petitions to get Bethel Heights annexed into Springdale because Bethel Heights can't solve its sewer issue. They turned in petitions to Pearce. Go to nwaonline.com/200307Daily/ for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

BETHEL HEIGHTS -- The city recorder declined Friday to certify petitions seeking an election on whether the city should annex into Springdale.

Charlene Bowen and Springdale filed a writ of mandamus with the Benton County Circuit Court on Friday in response. The plea asks a judge to make Bethel Heights city officials fulfill their duties under Arkansas law. Bowen, a Springdale resident, represents her city's petitioners.

Ernest Cate, Springdale city attorney, and Bill Watkins, an attorney representing the petitioners, received a letter at 3 p.m Friday saying the Bethel Heights petitions were insufficient. The letter came from Robert Rhoads, an attorney representing Bethel Heights, on behalf of Recorder/Treasurer Janet Nelson.

Nelson rejected the petitions because they didn't include verification of who collected the signatures, because one signature was a voter in Lowell and because Bethel Heights Mayor Cynthia Black heard some of those gathering signatures told people signing the petitions the intent was to get the city to address sewer issues, not to consolidate, according to Rhoads' letter.

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Bethel Heights Petitions

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Cate said the reasons given in the letter aren't among those state law allows to reject petitions.

Neither Rhoads nor Black returned email Friday seeking comment and clarification. Watkins declined comment because he hadn't seen the letter from Rhoads. Nelson didn't return a phone call Friday.

Cate said the petitions given to Bethel Heights included 82 valid signatures, saying he asked Springdale City Clerk Denise Pearce to check them. Only 55 valid signatures of Bethel Heights registered voters are needed to call for a special election.

The petitioners submitted about 4,000 signatures to Pearce from Springdale voters, with 3,000 needed.

State law says the clerk must tell those gathering petitions how many more qualified signatures are needed to be certified and allows them 10 days to come up with more signatures. Bethel Heights hasn't done that, Cate said.

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Springdale Petition

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Washington County Clerk Becky Lewallen said Friday her office counts the number of valid signatures, not the invalid ones. If there's doubt, the office makes every reasonable effort to confirm or disprove a signature is valid. The number of invalid signatures doesn't matter as long as there are enough valid signatures on a petition, she said.

If a petition has an obvious flaw or if someone claims any of the petition's signatures were improperly gathered, Lewallen would consult with the county's attorney, she said.

Arkansas law spells out the procedure for consolidation of municipalities. It says, in part: "if any petition is determined to be insufficient, he or she [city clerk or town recorder] shall notify the petitioners in writing without delay, and the petitioners shall be permitted 10 days from notification to solicit additional signatures or prove any rejected signatures." The petitions were turned in to Nelson on March 9, according to organizers.

Bowen said she supports the annexation because she's related to Joetta and Lawrence Bowen of Bethel Heights. Lawrence Bowen filed a complaint about the Bethel Heights wastewater treatment plant with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality in February 2019, and the agency opened an investigation.

Lawrence Bowen in the complaint said untreated sewage from the Bethel Heights plant on Lincoln Drive was collecting on his land. Lawrence lives immediately to the east of the plant.

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Petition for Writ of Mandamus

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"We've been to many City Council meetings, but they won't talk to us. We can't seem to get anything done, so we'll just annex to Springdale," said Charlene Bowen, who has joined her family's efforts to keep sewage out of their yard.

To leave one city for another, residents wanting to move must first get petitions filed in favor of the change in both cities. The petition in each city must have signatures of at least 15% of the number of voters in the last mayoral election, Cate said.

In Bethel Heights, voters would be asked if they want to dissolve their city and join Springdale. Springdale voters would be asked if they want to accept 3,000 Bethel Heights residents into the city. A simple majority vote in each city would pass the measures.

Springdale's City Council agenda for its Tuesday meeting includes accepting the petitions and calling for a special election on the annexation. The law says the bigger city would ask the county judge to set a date for the election.

"However, Springdale can't do our part until they do theirs," Cate said.

Organizers hoped to hold the election in August. The paperwork required would be due to election commissioners in Benton and Washington counties by June 12. The election would be held in both cities on the same day. Bethel Heights lies in Benton County, as does part of Springdale. The majority of Springdale is in Washington County.

The Department of Environmental Quality in August fined the city $100,000 for operating its wastewater treatment plants outside of compliance with its state permit, failing to report test results and falsifying reports.

The department forgave 80% of those fines in November after Bethel Heights officials signed an agreement to continue repairs and renovation of its treatment system until it's operating in compliance with state law. City officials also agreed to eventually close the system.

The state in March filed a lawsuit in Benton County Circuit Court against the city, seeking a court order for Bethel Heights to take all necessary steps to stop wastewater from pooling on the surface of the city's treatment site.

The department also wants the $81,200 in suspended fines, plus attorneys fees, from the city.

State Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, represents Bethel Heights.

"This is no surprise because anyone paying attention knows the city government there would find some kind of excuse," she said Friday.

"Look at what they've done with ADEQ," Della Rosa said. "They kept saying they'd get in compliance and never did. It's the same in this case. Everything they've done is to thwart there ever being an election.

"In the meantime, they want state taxpayers to finance an $11.6-million pipeline and saddle the city's people with all that debt so, when it's all said and done, Mayor Black can keep her job."

The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission on Wednesday tabled a vote to loan Bethel Heights $11.6 million to build a pumping station and a 14-mile pipe to the Northwest Arkansas Conservation Authority wastewater treatment plant in south Bentonville.

Terms of the loan would require a 66% increase in residential sewer rates.

"I wrote a letter to the ANRC asking them to table it, and I'm glad they did," Della Rosa said of the loan application. The purpose of the pipeline project isn't to solve the problem, but to saddle Bethel Heights with so much debt that annexation will no longer appeal to Springdale, Della Rosa said.

Cate said he plans to talk to Benton County Circuit Judge John Scott on Tuesday morning, who was assigned to hear the case.

"The state gives the people the right to determine if they want this annexation," Cate said. "The bottom line is the voters in Bethel Heights and Springdale have the right to decide this. And they're depriving the citizens of that right."

NW News on 05/23/2020

Print Headline: Bethel Heights rejects annexation effort

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