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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Izard Quorum Court spars with spectators

Monday, November 29, 2010

The November elections are over but, in Washington, Democrats and Republicans are still arguing over the direction Congress will take in 2011.

In Izard County, a group of citizens from Izard, Fulton and Sharp Counties, continue to pressure Quorum Court members to take a more conservative approach.

The courtroom was nearly filled when Justices of the Peace gathered for their Nov. 9 court meeting.

As the meeting began, County Judge Rayburn Finley addressed spectators.

"There are lot of people in the audience tonight," said Rayburn. "Before you speak, you must be recognized. This is a government body,"

That warning marked a departure from past meetings where audience members often interrupted quorum court discussions with questions and comments.

But old habits die hard.

Early in the meeting, members considered an ordinance to accept a $5,600 grant to buy handheld metal detectors to improve courtroom security.

As they prepared to vote, a spectator, leery of accepting government grants, shouted out, "Have you projected yearly maintenance costs (on the detectors)?"

After being told the Sheriff's Department would maintain the devices and maintenance costs would be minimal, the ordinance was approved.

The next ordinance was proposed by JP Wayne Boren and favored by many in the audience. It sought to require county officials to attend quorum court meetings, submit regular reports on year to date spending and face loss of department funding for failure to comply.

During discussion, JP Neil Olan suggested, it would be best to delay action on the proposal until a new judge, treasurer, and newly elected JPs take office in January.

JP James Elbert pointed out county offices already provide regular spending reports to the Finance Committee and JP Glendon Everett said threatening to withhold money from departments made the court sound like "school children."

JP Boren said elected officials should be required to attend the meetings and there is no reason to wait until next year.

Audience member Steve Barber chimed in, "We're paying you every month. Shouldn't you be here every month?"

After pointing out the ordinance was aimed at county office holders and not quorum court, the ordinance was defeated by a vote of two in favor and seven opposed.

Next order of business was the main event of the night: the continuing controversy over a hazardous mitigation study.

This summer, Judge Finley and most mayors in Izard County, authorized White River Planning and Development to seek a federal grant to conduct a study on improvements the county could make to reduce damage and injuries from floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters.

The study could lead to FEMA grants to replace substandard bridges, build public storm shelters and make other improvements.

"This is sneaky," declared Dr. Adam Gray, from the audience.

"We don't want this," exclaimed another.

Gray and others in the crowd claimed city and county officials were wrong to seek funds for a study without getting public input. Opponents fear hazard mitigation is really a plot to take land and water rights from citizens.

Emotions ran high during the discussion of what to do.

When one citizen, Suzanne Runsick, said she thought the mitigation plan "would be doing a good thing." Another woman shouted, "You're only one person."

"That's enough," Judge Finley interjected.

"There are a lot of people here (in opposition)," the opponent persisted.

"Excuse me but I believe I have the floor and would like my JP to know I am in favor," Runsick concluded.

After much discussion, Dr. Gray proposed a compromise.

"Nullify those agreements (authorization to seek grant money) and then let's start fresh and do the research and make a good sound decision," Gray suggested to loud applause.

JP Boren made a motion to stop further work to obtain a grant for a mitigation study.

But, during discussion, Sonia Estes of the Office of Emergency Management and some JPs expressed concern the vote could mean Izard County could forever lose its chance to obtain much needed infrastructure improvement money.

After much discussion, the motion to reject the hazard mitigation study was withdrawn.

A new motion proposed stopping the process of seeking money for a study grant until after the first of the year, so the issue could be researched and discussed further.

That motion was approved, insuring the controversial issue will return to the table in 2011.

JPs then heard that the effort to build a badly needed communications system for police and fire departments remains bogged down.

While the current system works poorly and there is fear the old radio tower is in danger of collapsing, the county is still negotiating to buy mountain land for a new tower.

Even if the land is obtained, Assistant County Attorney Daniel Brightwell told the court it will cost $150,000 or more to build and equip the communications system.

"I've looked. I can't find any grants for it," said Brightwell. "There's just not any available grants for a radio tower project."

JP Olan suggested the cash strapped county may have just one option.

"We have a reserve fund we can tap into if need be," Olan said. "We've been discussing this for a long time and our radios are in a terrible shape."

Quorum court is working this month to finalize a 2011 budget. It is to approve the new budget at its Dec. 7 meeting.

The meeting ended with more public comment. Two speakers warned the court it could face legal action over two issues: budgeting county funds to assist nonprofit organizations or business expansion and failing to allow public comment on agenda issues before they are voted on.

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