CLINTON – The Van Buren County Quorum Court met March 19 in its regular session. Items included a review of the recent sales tax ballot and funding for senior center food service.
The meeting was sparsely attended, reflecting the public response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was also reflected in the relatively quick nature of the meeting, over in under 90 minutes as matters such as routine officials reports did not take place.
Van Buren County Judge Dale James explained to the justices that by law, the Quorum Court is required to meet in any circumstance “unless martial law has been declared.”
Justices had the opportunity to ask questions of Mark Wilburn, the attorney who had written the sales tax ballot measure. Questions centered on the confusion about the measure, including what was understood until after the vote had taken place that it was an “all or nothing” ballot.
The ballot broke down the sales tax dissemination into five parts, including support for the library, 911 and first responders, volunteer fire departments, and the hospital, Ozark Health.
Justice Mary Philips expressed surprise at the outcome of the vote, which funded volunteer fire departments while not supporting a sales tax extension for the remaining entities. She was joined by James, who said he was surprised to hear from Wilburn, the day after the election, that the vote did support Volunteer Fire Department funding.
“I’m totally blown away by this because it’s not what I heard and understood,” Philips said.
Wilburn told the court that it was a matter of state law which required the ballot to be written as it was, and it was by the terms of state law that the single-entity, that is the Fire Department, was supported by the vote while the others were not supported.
Wilburn, in the exchange with justices, said work was underway to bring a sales tax vote back to voters, possibly on the November ballot.
Justice Nickie Brown referred to the ballot, and the surprise if it being able to provide for a single entity, “a learning experience.”
“An expensive learning experience,” Philips added.
Brown spoke to the need for the court of have several meeting to discuss what was to be done due to the lack of needed funding. Justice Dell Holt stated the library funding was something which could come up on the November ballot.
Meals for seniors was another topic before the justices, as the Senior Center requested $13,000 in funding from the county in order to continue providing meals from its Clinton-based kitchen.
Meals were being provided by Meals-on-Wheels as the public space at the senior center was closed due to pandemic concerns, and budget cuts had previously led to closing of other senior center kitchens in the county, James told the court.
Justice Brian Tatum, who also heading the budget committee in preparing the county’s 2020 budget, pointed out that while the money was a requirement and serving a good cause, the expense was significant. Further significance comes from the expected impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Justice Ester Bass countered that taking care of the people who “built the county” was something which had to be done.
Justices also heard that due to isolation recommendations, the Meals-on-Wheels program was especially important for seniors to get meals.
James explained that in its current operations, and due to increased expense due to the minimum wage being raised, the center was being forced to choose between paying bills or meeting payroll every month, something the $13,000 in funding would relive.
Without the $13,000, the senior center was facing closure, justices were told.
Justices voted in support of the funding, with Justices Tatum and Bradford voting against.
Justice Mary Philips read an ordinance, which was approved by all Justices, supporting Van Buren County as a place which supported gun rights and the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
James told the group that this ordinance came about after the state of Virginia’s recent gun-control action, which some felt was beyond the limits of the constitution.
Other Arkansas counties had recently passed, or are in the process of passing, similar ordinances supporting second amendment rights, including Scott, Independence and Cleburne counties.
The Court passed, on the second and third reading, an ordinance which changes the terms of Election Commission reimbursement and number of meetings.
The ordinance moves reimbursement per meeting down from $150 for the head of the three member commission and $125 for the two remaining members to a flat $100 for all.
It also limits meetings to 10 for each election, with additional meetings lowering the reimbursement rate to $25 per member.
This ordinance was first proposed at the emergency Quorum Court meeting held last month, where justices heard that the commission had exhausted its 2020 budget.
Since then the three commission members had resigned.
New members had not yet been appointed, James told the court.
The court also approved a part-time custodian for the courthouse, a previously funded position as justices heard about the at-times dire needs for cleaning undertaken by Circuit Clerk Debbie Gray’s office.
Justices were careful, before adjournment, to articulate the importance of care during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amid concerns surrounding the novel coronavirus outbreak, Van Buren County District Court officials have canceled and rescheduled upcoming hearings.
District judges David L. Reynolds and Chris R. Carnahan rescheduled multiple hearings in Faulkner and Van Buren counties after previously canceling proceedings scheduled through spring break in Faulkner County because the Arkansas Supreme Court has since ruled that all in-person proceedings in appellate, circuit and district courts are suspended through April 3.
The Arkansas Supreme Court issued a per curiam order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which implemented additional emergency precautions to prevent putting the public at an unnecessary risk of spreading or being exposed to the coronavirus.
Once the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended against gatherings of more than 10 people, the Arkansas Supreme Court implemented stricter safety procedures.
“Despite the suspension of in-person court proceedings, Arkansas courts still must continue to carry out the core, constitutional functions of the Arkansas judiciary as prescribed by law and continue to uphold the constitutional rights of litigants seeking redress in any Arkansas court,” the order signed by Chief Justice John Dan Kemp reads in part. “Each Administrative Judge should work with local law enforcement and county agencies to ensure that, to the extent possible, courthouses remain accessible to carry out essential constitutional functions and time-sensitive proceedings.”
The Arkansas Supreme Court has also ruled that anyone summoned to participate in a jury panel is “hereby suspended [from duty] until Friday, May 1.”
In response to the Arkansas Supreme Court’s per curiam order, district judges in the Ninth Judicial District have adjusted the following hearings in Van Buren County:
All plea and arraignment hearings scheduled for April 2 will now be held on May 20.
Civil cases set for April 15 will now be held on May 28.
First appearance hearings will continue as usual so that a bond can be set in each case. These hearings are held at 1:30 p.m. on Mondays and at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. Typically, these hearings are open to the public. However, officials said they will be closed to the public until further notice.
“These hearings will be closed to be public until the crisis abates,” district court officials announced Thursday. “However, should an alternate means of broadcasting the hearings become economically feasible, the Court will post notices on the Courthouse door and to the Media on how to observe these hearings.”
For a full list of court-related cancellations from across the state, visit www.arcourts.gov/news/judiciary-closings-cancellations-changes.
Van Buren County Sheriff Lucas Emberton released a statement on March 16 saying that several safety restrictions have been imposed at the county jail to prevent spreading COVID-19 among inmates.
“As concerns related to the COVID-19 are on the rise, [I have] made a difficult but necessary decision to place restrictions on those entering the Van Buren County Detention Center,” the sheriff said in a news release. “This decision has been made solely in the interest of public safety, safety of our employees and detainees, and to reduce the risk of the introduction and spread of COVID-19 into our facilities.”
Recently imposed safety restrictions include:
Limitations on non-personnel entering the Van Buren County Sheriff’s Office. The front gate will also be locked to prevent unauthorized individuals from entering the facility.
All individuals entering the jail (officers, deputies, offenders, etc.) must be approved by Sheriff Emberton or Chief Deputy Randy Churches. Arrestees and other individuals will have their temperature taken and must complete a questionnaire/health screening to determine if they are a health risk.
In-person and in-house kiosk visitations are temporarily suspended.
Bond agents will not be allowed inside the jail to speak with detainees, and bond paperwork must be completed in the lobby. The paperwork cannot be faxed in.
“As this situation evolves, the Van Buren County Sheriff’s Office administration will adjust protocols – always keeping in mind public safety and health and well-being of our staff and detainees,” Emberton said.
In a county-wide government teleconference Tuesday morning, City of Clinton Police Chief D.L. Webb asked that anyone putting trash out to double-bag for the safety of collectors.
Two Batesville men, Alexander G. Broisus, 27, and Jesse R. Shoemaker, 35, have pled guilty to the 2018 murder of Michael Bryant who was shot to death at a home on Harrison Street Annex.
The murder occurred on the evening of June 13, 2018 at a home that Bryant shared with his companion. Store video shows Shoemaker stopping at Walmart just minutes before the shooting to buy ammunition for his rifle. Brosius drove Shoemaker’s truck to Bryant’s home, dropping Shoemaker, who was armed with the rifle, near the rear of Bryant’s house. Bryant exited through the back door, where he was met by Brosius. Shoemaker then fired three shots, one of the shots proved fatal to Bryant. At least one of the bullets entered the house where Bryant’s companion was located. Shoemaker and Brosius, fled the scene in Shoemaker’s truck. A short time later, Shoemaker reported his truck had been stolen, but later confessed that he and Brosius had ditched the truck and the firearms to cover up the crime. Shoemaker confessed to the murder.
The primary investigator in the case was Detective Sgt. Zach Rawlins with the Independence County Sheriff’s Office.
Shoemaker pled guilty to the following counts on March 17: First degree murder; committing a terroristic act; illegal possession of body armor; filing a false report; and illegal use of a communication device. He received 35 year in the Arkansas Department of Corrections on the murder charge, 20 years on the terroristic act; and six years each on the possession of body armor, filing a false report and illegal use of a communication device charges for a total of 73 years. Shoemaker has been held in the Independence County Jail since the shooting and will be transported to the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
Brosius previously pled guilty to three felony counts on Aug. 7, 2019: Conspiracy to commit first degree murder; illegal possession of body armor and possession of methamphetamine.
He was sentenced to 30 years in the Arkansas Department of Corrections on the conspiracy to commit murder charge, 20 years on the drug charges and six years on the possession of body armor charge for a total of 56 years.
He has been at ADC since August 2019. Court records indicate that neither defendant had prior felony convictions.
A jury trial for Shoemaker had been scheduled for two weeks in April.
“In the world of Covid19, we were all concerned about bringing in a large jury pool for this trial. The plea eliminates the need for trial,” Prosecuting Attorney Eric Hance stated. “I think it’s fair to say that crystal methamphetamine played a large role in these crimes. The connection between illegal drugs and violent crimes cannot be denied.”
The cases against the two co-defendants were presided over by Judge Tim Weaver in Independence County Circuit Court.