Ash Flat mayor commandeers patrol cars; leaves officers tranded
Ash Flat is down an officer but the exact reason isn't quite clear. The officer says he was fired, and the mayor says he quit.
As the Feb. 5 tornado made its way across Izard County, it headed straight for Ash Flat and struck many homes and damaged trees before it destroyed numerous businesses and homes in Highland.
After receiving word that the twister had struck Ash Flat and began hitting Highland, Ash Flat Officer Bobby Woods and his friend, Highland Officer Kyle Crawford, made their way to check on Crawford's family in Crawford's personal vehicle, Woods said. Crawford was off duty. Woods was on vacation.
Crawford and Woods tried to check on Crawford's uncle, David Harris, when they saw the destruction at his home and business. After learning they couldn't go over the downed powerlines, they continued on toward FM 101 Road where Crawford's mother lives, Woods said.
They were held up when they got to Crispy Cone, Woods said. Woods got out of Crawford's truck and told his friend to continue on. Woods caught a ride and had fellow off-duty officer Tamara Roberts meet him at Sharp Office Supply in one of the police department's Dodge Durangos, he said. The two then traveled together the remainder of the way to Highland where they helped in the recovery effort.
"I figured I could get around and be of more use in the police vehicle with the lights and siren," Woods said.
Mayor Danny Traw said while the devastation was more severe in Highland, Ash Flat had its fair share as well.
In the Ash Flat Fire District 19 homes were destroyed and 37 were damaged, Traw said. Luckily there were only minor injuries reported. The Ash Flat Sewer Treatment Plant was also it by the storm.
Powerlines were down in Ash Flat as well. The lights on the cars were needed to help block traffic, Traw said. Patrol was also needed to protect the destroyed and damaged homes from looters, he said. A group of looters had to be run off from Dr. Charles Tucker's home, he said. The only police car in the city at the time was not in working order, he said. The car was damaged while Officer Jonathan Boyer went to check on his family who were in their home when it was destroyed by the tornado.
Traw said off-duty Officer Charlie Yates, who lives in Highland, made his way to Ash Flat on a 4-wheeler to help block traffic with his flash light. Highway 354 was blocked by trees along with other roads in the city, he said.
Traw said he then learned that Police Chief Mike Zeiger, who was off duty, and Woods both had city police cars in Highland while they were helping with the devastation there.
Because of the phone lines that were damaged, Traw said he could not reach Zeiger by phone or by city radio. He instead traveled to Highland with Alderman Jeff Johnson who dropped him off to pick up Woods' Durango, he said. Traw asked off-duty Yates to take Zeiger's car, he said.
"He needed to stay and help Highland,"?he said. "I just needed the vehicles. I'm all for helping Highland do what they had to do. I just don't know why he got so upset."
While Woods was helping with the recovery effort at Crispy Cone he was told by Traw to get back to the command center as soon as possible, Woods said. When he arrived Traw told him a police vehicle was needed in town. After Woods asked him why the vehicle was needed, he gave the vehicle to the mayor.
Woods then told Police Chief Mike Zeiger about Traw taking the Durango, he said. Zeiger then told him that Traw had had his police car taken from the command center as well.
"I kind of stood there flabbergasted for a minute," Woods said.
Traw said Woods didn't willingly give the vehicle to him. He said Woods became angry and quit.
"I wasn't telling them that they had to come back," Traw said. "They needed him in Highland; I just needed his vehicle."
Woods said after Traw took his vehicle, he then called Traw on the radio and asked him to bring the vehicle back. He told him by law only police officers can respond to police calls.
"He said 'I'm the mayor. I own this city (Ash Flat), and I own this vehicle.'" Woods said.
Then officers called a meeting with Traw soon after at the Ash Flat Police Department. Traw said Woods quit then as well.
During the meeting Traw told Woods he had abandoned the city and should have been covering Ash Flat rather than Highland after the disaster, Woods said. Traw told the officers he wanted 24 hour guard at Tucker's home, he said. Traw denies that.
Zeiger then asked who works for the department, Woods said. Traw told him he and Roberts should each take two days off and told Woods he could "take his walking papers," Woods said.
"Danny fired me for going to assist Highland in a city vehicle," Woods said. "He denies firing me, but he did it in a room of people. He's denying firing me, but when you say 'take your walking papers' I don't know what else that would mean."
Traw said although there are rumors that Alderman Carolyn Estes attended the meeting with the police officers, he said she came in after the meeting was over. If she had been in the meeting, the meeting itself would have been illegal. The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act requires the public and media to be informed to any special meetings at least two hours in advance.
That night Boyer returned to duty and Officer Shane Russell, who was battling pneumonia, both patrolled the city in the two cars, he said.
"I felt I was taking care of the people of Ash Flat," Traw said. "I knew the county was tied up."
Woods said Zeiger and Roberts both resumed work with the city the next day at the request of Traw.
"I want my job back, and I want him to say he was in the wrong," Woods said. "I want him to publicly apologize."
Woods said he would also like Traw to loosen the reigns on the police department.
"It seems like he has a personal vendetta against the police department since he's taken over as mayor," Woods said.
Woods has been with the police department for 3.5 years. Prior to that he worked part-time for the Highland Police Department.
Despite Woods' absence, the city is patrolling 24 hours a day in the entire Ash Flat Fire District, Traw said.
"I just feel so sorry for everybody," he said. "People's livelihoods are scattered out in the fields."
A special meeting of the Ash Flat City Council took place Feb. 11. At that time the mayor and council reinstated Woods to his position.