- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

The Jonesboro Sun. April 12, 2017.

So now we know the real reason why former District Court Clerk Joe Monroe resigned his post to take a fortuitous opening with the county that pays about half as much.

Craighead County District Judge David Boling accused Monroe on March 30 of improperly awarding vacation time, personal time and compensatory time to multiple deputy court clerks. When faced with the evidence Boling had uncovered, Monroe verbally offered his resignation and followed that up April 3 with a letter of resignation.

Boling turned his findings over to Arkansas Division of Legislative Audit to investigate. Like all taxpayers, we’ll be interested to find out the gory details of what auditors uncover, including Monroe’s own vacation/sick/compensatory record.

Miraculously, Monroe was hired by Craighead County Judge Ed Hill to work in the county’s road department almost immediately after resigning his post as court clerk. Hill went so far as to stop the human resources process of Monroe’s resignation, instead calling it a transfer.

Hill declined immediate comment on Boling’s claim, saying he had yet to read Boling’s letter to legislative audit.

But wouldn’t Hill question Monroe’s reasons for wanting to step down from a job that pays twice as much to operate road equipment for the county? Wouldn’t Monroe know that Hill would soon find out about Boling’s letter to legislative audit?

If he didn’t know, Hill should have investigated further before creating a job for Monroe. If he did, well, that would look really bad.

Let’s just say the good-old-boy system in Craighead County government is alive and well, thank you.

There’s been a lot of that being discovered lately as The Sun recently reported that legislative audit found massive abuse of vacation and sick leave in the 2nd Judicial District Public Defender’s Office, resulting in the firing of long-time chief public defender Bill Howard. Howard and several of his deputies had failed to report any vacation or sick leave for a dozen years or more, according to a report provided by the public defender’s commission.

The audit found similar abuse statewide.

It’s sickening.

It’s impossible to believe these state employees - attorneys, no less - were never sick or took a vacation during those years in question.

We suspect it’s because any vacation or sick time not taken can be banked and reimbursed to a certain limit when employees retire or resign their post.

In other words, they walk away from the job with a bag of money they may not have actually earned.

It’s become painfully obvious that vacation and sick leave are being abused in the public defender’s office and district court. We’d also like to know if that’s the case with compensatory time, when salaried employees supposedly work more than 40 hours a week and bank that time for later use or a big payout.

What’s painfully clear is that no one - with the current exception of Judge Boling and a few foxes - is watching the taxpayers’ hen house in county government.

We applaud Judge Boling for turning his findings over to legislative audit. He’s making a huge impact on district court. With Boling’s recent findings, Judge Hill should also ask legislative audit to investigate leave and comp time throughout county government.

That’s why The Sun has asked for the accumulated vacation, sick leave and compensatory time of all county employees for the past five years.

It will be interesting to see if our elected officials and their employees are accurately following the rules or if they’re feathering their own nests at the taxpayers’ expense when they leave the county’s employment.

We look forward to publishing our findings.

___

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. April 17, 2017.

At last count, our esteemed legislators in less than solemn assembly have added at least 10 more exemptions to this state’s once model Freedom of Information Act, which tends to emerge from every session of the Ledge with still more holes in it. This time it came out of the fray not only tattered and torn but almost beyond recognition.

To quote Tom Larimer, a temperate fellow who’s executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, some changes in the FOIA “were not bad ideas. Unfortunately, the bills went way too far by closing ‘records and other information.’ ” That phrase, he noted, could cover “just about anything” any agency of the state wanted covered up. “I don’t think there is any doubt,” he added, “the ‘security’ bills passed in this session will have the most impact on the FOIA going forward.” Impact indeed. Like the impact a freight train might have on a car stranded on its tracks. They may be dubbed “security” bills but they’re likely to leave We the People more insecure as ever when it comes to knowing just what our public servants are serving up.

Seven of these misconceived changes have already been signed into law by our governor, The Hon. Asa Hutchinson. Some of the exemptions may be warranted, but in their cumulative effect they’re a standing invitation to abuse.

For examples, the public will not be allowed to see or hear any recordings of a police officer’s death; certain information about community correction centers or about records involving details about security at the Governor’s Mansion; a lot of investigative files on juveniles; information about security in or around public schools from kindergartens to universities; information about the state Capitol’s security records - you name it, and the information may not be available to you, Mr. and Mrs. Arkansas.

Just about the only thing that kept this session of the Ledge from being a total catastrophe for this state’s Freedom of Information Act instead of an unmitigated disaster seems to have been its sponsor’s decision not to press ahead with a proposal that would have kept secret any bill that had been considered by any attorney for any governmental agency. Thank goodness for the smallest favor.

___

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. April 18, 2017.

Is it really a surprise that an organization to aid the homeless in Northwest Arkansas is itself coming up on the short side of financial stability?

The homeless are, generally speaking, quite used to being ignored, so doesn’t it make sense a local nonprofit striving to get people out of the woods and on track toward improved lives would face some of the same challenges?

Reporter Dan Holtmeyer recently detailed the difficulties of the 7 Hills Homeless Center in Fayetteville. The center since 2001 has tried to serve as a bridge between hope and those who experience an unexpected path toward economic uncertainty, substance abuse, mental illness, physical abuse or any of the other afflictions that contribute to the threat of or actual loss of housing.

Now, just as at other times in the 16-year life of the organization, 7 Hills faces its own uncertain future. The bottom line is the bottom line, really. The organization’s leaders have worked to shore up philanthropic support for its services, which range from providing showers, food and clothing to referring people for medical support to giving people the skills they need to get their lives back on track.

A major hurdle lay ahead: In 2013, 7 Hills needed a home for its homeless center. It purchased a property on South School Avenue in Fayetteville under favorable purchase terms in which a future balloon payment was a prominent feature. Now, the organization must pay about $325,000 it owes by the start of June. It’s money 7 Hills does not have.

Meanwhile, homelessness is growing. The region’s economic fortunes draw people in search of their own piece of success, and yet it doesn’t always work out. Even a strong economic tide doesn’t lift every ship. Sometimes, people at the margins can simply be washed away.

And let’s be honest here: Many people would love for the homeless to just go away, especially now that they’re more visible on street corners holding those Supreme Court-protected cardboard signs saying “Anything will help.” Let’s go for a little more honesty: The homeless aren’t going anywhere, particularly if they are left unassisted.

Even as generous as people in Northwest Arkansas generally prove to be, the response to the homeless is typically far different than, say, a request to fund a children’s hospital or to expand a library. When’s the last time anyone has heard of a “naming opportunity” related to the homeless? Those other projects are extraordinarily worthwhile and, shall we say, sexier than giving money to aid the homeless. Yet the need remains undiminished. It just seems like compassion sometimes runs out when it comes to the homeless.

Complicating things even further is this: Taking care of 7 Hills’ financial obligations won’t “solve” homelessness in Northwest Arkansas. It will, of course, render assistance to an organization deeply involved in day-to-day care and guidance of homeless people, and that’s a kind of generosity one can be proud of. But 7 Hills leaders say the region desperately needs a regional network and plan to address homelessness in all its forms, from the man on the street to the middle-schooler who is sleeping on someone’s couch, unsure about how long that situation will last.

This is not just Fayetteville’s problem. Indeed, it can be said with some veracity that the people, government and churches of Fayetteville have responded to the plight of the homeless more than any community in the region, but they’re not alone. Nonprofit groups offering help for domestic violence victims or those who have suffered sexual abuse or children in neglect situations provide some support for populations at high risk of becoming homeless.

But 7 Hills has been at the forefront, offering assistance for all who have no permanent home. Losing that organization would be a hit from which it will be hard to recover.

Northwest Arkansas is a land of great wealth. It’s also a place in which great poverty continues. Philanthropic efforts to help people avoid sinking into hunger and homelessness are commendable. But the support for 7 Hills has fallen short of the demand. The expense of doing what it does extends beyond the organization’s means.

What’s the way out? In this instance, it really does rely on giving. Providing assistance to the homeless and those on the verge of being homeless will never be a self-supporting enterprise. So giving counts, and as with all nonprofit endeavors, all giving counts.

What 7 Hills really needs is one or two major benefactors who care deeply about the plight of those in need, who understand that people can hardly get back on a healthy path when they are uncertain about where they’re going to sleep tonight or next week. Benefactors whose hearts are filled by knowing they’re changing lives are in desperate need of opportunities for change.

Who is ready to take up that call? 7 Hills is still looking.

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