In a 7-5 vote, the Faulkner County Quorum Court appointed former Justice of the Peace Damon Edwards to finish out the term as Tax Assessor during a special called meeting Monday.
Former assessor Angie Hill resigned on July 18 to accept a job as deputy director in the Assessment Coordination Division (ACD) for the state. Edwards was sworn in after the meeting and attended the Equalization Board appeals as assessor on Tuesday morning.
Deputy County Attorney Whitney Doolittle, who Hill recommended succeed her because Doolittle has worked on the court cases the tax assessor’s office is dealing with since 2012, and Jeff Stephens, who served as Faulkner County Tax Assessor for 20 years, were also nominated for the position, leaving some county residents who attended the meeting to think the appointment was politically motivated.
"What a joke," one woman in the audience who declined to give her name said after the appointment was made.
Prior to the vote, JP Johnny Brady asked each of the nominees what they knew about the Equalization Board meeting.
Doolittle, who answered first, discussed the new laws that went into effect this year and the process the board would go through Tuesday — which was mainly procedural.
Edwards said he had "spent most of the weekend" reviewing the board’s website, organizational laws and procedures.
"I’ve been going over those and studying them," he said. "I think that, although I’m not as privy as Ms. Doolittle is to some current litigation, I do feel confident that I could address the issues and deal with the information."
Stephens answered last and talked about previous sessions he attended and said he too had reviewed the new laws.
The court opened the floor to public input before the vote, during which the three candidates had at least one person who spoke on their behalf.
Gelinda Mudgett, who currently serves on the Equalization Board, said it was important for the quorum court to consider the candidates’ experience.
"Jeff Stephens was prior assessor so he’s going to know exactly what the process is that we have coming up," she said. "Whitney Doolittle knows the process and also knows all the information that they’re going to need for these court cases that we have coming up. I’m really worried about, as a citizen, of the monies that could be lost if somebody gets in court and doesn’t know what the case is about.
"In respect to Damon Edwards, I don’t know his experience but we do need an experienced body as assessor to finish the term."
A woman who worked with Edwards at his previous job said he was the best choice. "Damon has a lot of management experience. He and I worked together at Windstream Communications," she said. "He has managed many of our command centers. You also know that he was a JP.
"He’s got a lot of experience and I think he will serve very well. When he says that he’s going to read the rules and the laws, he means it. He can make logical decisions and he knows how to follow the law."
Marvin Lessmann, who admitted he asked to be considered for the position, accused the JPs of discussing county business outside of formal meetings — which is forbidden under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act — said he was disgusted with the way the quorum court handled the appointment.
"I’m disappointed in this process because we ought to be thinking about what’s best for the county," he said. "I get tired of seeing some things done for political purposes that should be done for the people. All I’m saying is let’s start here, let’s get it right. Let’s do it right."
The packed gallery applauded when Lessmann finished speaking.
After the public discussion concluded, JPs Justin Knight, Randy Higgins, Steve Goode, Jim Houston, Eric King, Spencer Hawks and Jerry Boyer voted to appoint Edwards while JPs Bill Dodgen, Barry Williams, Dan Thessing, Johnny Brady and John Pickett voted to appoint Doolittle. JP LeRoy Hendricks was absent.
After the meeting, Edwards told the Log Cabin Democrat his reasons for wanting the position that pays nearly $72,000 a year were twofold.
"Windstream laid me off last Thursday, so I actually, part of this selfish — wanting a job — but the other part of it is I’ve really missed the public service not being a JP," he said. "It’s humbling that I have that much support."
He said he would work hard to keep the office successful.
"One of the things that I really enjoy is customer service. This will allow me to use those customer service skills," he said. "Also, I’ve got a lot of experience with law enforcement; I understand depositions.
"I’m not a lawyer but I have no problem putting in the hours, doing whatever it takes to keep this office successful."