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Newport lawsuit filed to stop transfer of marijuana facility

NEWPORT — Local leaders have filed suit to stop the transfer of a medical marijuana cultivation center in Newport to Pine Bluff.

The lawsuit said Natural State Wellness Enterprises, the original owner of the permit in 2018, took advantage of hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial incentives in deciding to locate the cultivation facility in Newport.

The complaint was filed Monday in Jackson County Circuit Court by Newport Mayor David Stewart on behalf of the people of the city. Other plaintiffs are Jon Chadwell, director of the Newport Economic Development Commission; the Northeast Arkansas Charitable Foundation; and the Newport-Jackson County Industrial Development Bond Board.

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission approved the sale of Jonesboro-based Natural State Wellness Enterprises to Good Day Farm LLC and transfer of the cultivation facility to Pine Bluff on Nov. 10.

Little Rock attorney David A. Couch said in the complaint that the plaintiffs “had no knowledge that the sale and transfer of the cultivation facility was even being contemplated or considered.”

Newport leaders only learned of the sale when it was announced Nov. 16 to the employees, Couch said.

“Good Day and Natural State took active steps to conceal from the plaintiffs the potential sale and transfer of the licenses and the applications for approval of those actions,” Couch wrote. “In conversations with representatives of Good Day and Natural State, both indicated that each other had required that the transaction not be disclosed to Newport.”

On the other hand, the planned sale was common knowledge among community leaders in Pine Bluff, according to the complaint. In fact, Rep. Vivian Flowers wrote a letter of support to commissioners on Oct. 8.

Couch also said Good Day Farm wasn’t even incorporated under Arkansas law when the commission approved the sale.

“It is the unwritten policy of the MMC (not a rule) that once an application for the transfer of a license or location is made, the MMC does not have the authority to reverse that decision,” Couch wrote. “The unwritten policy is contrary to Amendment 98, which gives the MMC the sole authority over the licensing of facilities.”

Couch wrote Amendment 98 and help organize the petition drive in 1996 to get the proposal on the 2016 general election ballot.

The complaint contends Natural State and Good Day conspired to make the sale after Natural State faced sanctions and potential loss of license, for numerous violations, including failing to disclose that a Phoenix-based publicly traded company had an ownership interest. That company, Harvest Health & Recreation, had only been identified publicly as a contractor.

However, because the commission has only released redacted versions of what Natural State promised to do as a condition for gaining the original license, Newport leaders said in the complaint they have no way of knowing what was promised to the commission.

One thing they do know is that Natural State promised to donate 10 percent of its profits to Jackson County charities. Since the company and facility sold for an estimated $20 million, the lawsuit contends those charities should get 10 percent of the profit from the sale and future profits from the future operation.

In addition to the promise of 10 percent of the profits, the complaint said the Newport-Jackson County Industrial Development Bond Board sold 20 acres to Natural State Wellness, believed to be valued at $870,000, for just $20. The city also provided an estimated $75,000 worth of easements for streets, natural gas, electrical, sewer and water at no charge and installed a water and wastewater line at no charge. That work was worth more than $90,000, according to the complaint. The local leaders also provided more than 700 hours of staff time to support the original application. Also, the plaintiffs provided free solid waste services for the first operation and a 50 percent discount on wastewater services for two years.

In addition to 10 percent of the profits for the local charities, the lawsuit wants a judge to award the other plaintiffs “the market value of all land, easements, services, staff time and other consideration of value provided by Plaintiffs to Defendants less the amount paid to Plaintiffs by Defendants.”

Pursuant to Amendment 98, which authorized medical marijuana in Arkansas, the court should declare that all information in Natural State’s original application be made binding on Good Day and all future license holders.

The plaintiffs want the court to declare that the commission does have authority to revoke a license and location under Amendment 98, stop the transfer of the facility to Pine Bluff and compel the commission and Alcoholic Beverage Control Division to investigate “false and material statements made by Good Day and its representatives in the application and conduct a hearing to review and impose appropriate sanctions.”

Frank Smith, superintendent with Steve’s Electric, works to install a light fixture in what will soon be a Residence Inn by Marriott. Smith said the extended stay hotel should be completed by August.

Installing the fixtures

As case numbers drop, governor pushes more vaccinations

JONESBORO — The number of new cases of the coronavirus remained low Tuesday in Arkansas, but Gov. Asa Hutchinson said there is still a community spread of the virus.

The Arkansas Department of Health reported 163 new cases Tuesday, including 71 that were confirmed through lab testing. Five deaths were reported. To date at least 331,261 have contracted the disease in the state, and 1,602 cases are still active.

Hospitalizations statewide due to COVID-19 rose by seven from Monday to 152, including 26 who were on ventilators, which is an increase of three. In Northeast Arkansas, the numbers were unchanged from Monday, with 21 COVID hospitalized and two on ventilators.

Washington County reported 33 new cases Tuesday, followed by Pulaski with 23 and Benton with 17.

Craighead County had five, Greene County three, Lawrence County two and Poinsett County had one new case. Tuesday’s numbers were based on the result of 3,120 tests.

Hutchinson said during his weekly news conference it’s still important to be vaccinated, and more than 845,137 Arkansans have had at least their first dose to date..

Vaccinations among African-Americans continue to lag behind the white population, Hutchinson said.

However, Dr. Melanie Smith, the health department’s director of health equity, said an education program continues to provide equal access to vaccination sites.

“Teams are dispatched into counties that have low vaccination rates and they work with local leaders, including mayors, state representatives, church leaders and civic groups,” Smith said. The teams include health professionals and educators, public information specialists and lay leaders.

In response to a reporter’s question, Hutchinson said he would not favor a state-sanctioned “vaccine passport,” but said he wouldn’t blame private businesses if they made vaccination a condition of continued employment.

“We have drug testing, and if they have a sensitive environment, they want to make sure they have the highest quality of protections against COVID, then that’s the private sector and their right to protect their workplace.,” Hutchinson said. He used the example of the cruise lines.

“If I was going on a cruise line, I would feel more comfortable if they had an all vaccination policy,” the governor said. “That way you feel safe, so I think you have to give latitude to the private sector.”

Northeast Arkansas COVID-19 cases by county through Tuesday.

Craighead – 11,379 confirmed (up 3), 1,730 probable (up 2 from Monday), 58 active cases (up 3); 156 confirmed deaths, 19 probable.

Greene – 4,798 confirmed (up 3), 1,229 probable (unchanged); 32 active (up 2); 63 confirmed deaths, 12 probable.

Lawrence – 1,669 confirmed (unchanged), 402 probable (up 2); 5 active (unchanged); 39 confirmed deaths, 4 probable.

Poinsett – 2,718 confirmed (up 1), 401 probable (unchanged); 9 active (up 1); 61 confirmed deaths, 15 probable.

Mississippi – 5,125 confirmed, 639 probable (both unchanged); 28 active cases (down 2); 90 confirmed deaths, 16 probable.

Jackson – 2,432 confirmed, 778 probable (both unchanged); 9 active cases (unchanged); 23 confirmed deaths, 15 probable.

Randolph – 1,576 confirmed, 490 probable (both unchanged); 15 active cases (down 1); 35 confirmed deaths, 12 probable.

Cross – 1,504 confirmed (unchanged), 425 probable (up 2); 12 active cases (up 2); 46 confirmed deaths, 3 probable.

Clay – 1,329 confirmed, 394 probable (both unchanged); 2 active cases (down 1) 36 firmed deaths, 14 probable.

Former member addresses Brookland board

BROOKLAND — After several attempts to get on the meeting agenda, former Brookland School Board member Rick Hathcoat was finally slated to speak Monday night.

Hathcoat was not in attendance due to a sudden illness. Kelly McGaughey, also a former board member, stood in Hathcoat’s place and read two letters from Hathcoat.

McGaughey walked to the tables and placed himself directly in front of the board members. He then grabbed a big white binder and paced the floor in front of the school board.

“Have any of ya’ll seen one of these,” he asked. “This should be the first thing you should get when you get elected.”

Danna Johnson, who has served on the board for two years, said she still hasn’t received one. McGaughey then read the first letter he was given by Hathcoat.

“There were a total of 28 employees who ate for free. ... Some of our highest-paid employees were eating for free,” Hathcoat wrote in the letter.

This occurred from October 2019 to Oct. 12, 2020, he said. Hathcoat wrote that the cost of those employees eating breakfast and lunch for free for 136 days cost the district $22,467.20.

“Do you realize how many children could have eaten for free?” McGaughey asked.

There were community members who paid to catch up past due lunch bills so students could go on field trips, Hathcoat wrote.

“Is anyone being held accountable?” McGaughey asked the board.

Aramark District Manager Robert Ginder said he has been with the company for 12 years and is familiar with policies regarding free meals for employees.

“We operate under federal guidelines which state if someone provides value to the program, that person could have a free meal,” he said.

Ginder provided examples for non-teaching staff like all the Aramark cooks.

“They have to taste the food anyway,” he said. “If someone in the maintenance department fixes an oven, they could be offered a free meal, or if someone in the janitor’s department took out the kitchen trash, they could be offered a meal.”

The document provided by the citizen Leadership Accountability Team was a list of employees’ names with checkmarks beside them for those who had taken free breakfast and lunch meals. Nine of those were Aramark employees, the rest were not.

Internet technology and maintenance department staffers, school resource officers and administrators had check marks by their names, indicating they ate both breakfast and lunch.

As far as teachers go, Ginder said that is really a gray area.

“The USDA really opened up a can of worms when they started the program,” he said.

Ginder said the $22,467.20 cost to the school added up by Hathcoat was not really accurate.

“That does not come out of the school’s pocket. It is actually covered by the USDA Child and Nutrition Program,” he said.

Ginder also said the former food services director Chelsie Russell was no longer employed with the district. He didn’t disclose if she was terminated.

“She has been gone for about two months. She made decisions that did not follow policy guidelines,” Ginder said.

The district’s attorney, Donn Mixon, provided a letter to The Sun written by former Aramark district manager Rick Nunez, dated April 3.

“I am addressing this issue of free meals given to district employees,” Nunez wrote. “Chelsie Russell, our food services director during this time period, decided on her own to give free meals to certain district employees without approval from Aramark or the district. The district was not charged for the meals.”

In a second letter, Hathcoat attached a petition that was distributed by a teacher and outlined policies on the school employees’ involvement in political activities.

“The employees are free to engage in political activities outside of school; they are forbidden to create or distribute petitions during school hours,” McGaughey read from Hathcoat’s letter. “How was this allowed to take place on campus, has anyone been held accountable?”

Hathcoat’s letter concluded with these words: “My prayer is that matters start getting addressed.”

Although there was no response from board members after McGaughey’s presentation, board members excused themselves to the executive session.

When they returned Brookland School Board President Josh Gallion said the letter from Nunez was sufficient explanation for the free meals. “The petition issue has been turned over to the building principals for their discretion,” he said.

Council postpones final action on cottage housing

JONESBORO — After approving further revisions to guidelines for the proposed new cottage housing ordinance, the Jonesboro City Council nonetheless postponed final approval Tuesday to give residents an opportunity to digest those changes.

The third and final reading of the proposed cottage housing ordinance was postponed at the council’s March 2 meeting, after several people said the standards were too loose. Members of community groups who had opposed the measure previously expressed appreciation for the changes, but council member Mitch Johnson said, “I personally am not comfortable with making a final decision.” He said some of the changes were raised Tuesday for the first time.

The proposal would authorize construction of smaller detached housing constructed in clusters surrounding a central village green. The cottage homes would be built in clusters of four with a maximum of 12 units on one acre under the proposal. The vision is to use this housing as infill in older sections of town, other than property that is zoned R-1 single family residential.

The cottage housing would be authorized in R-2, R-3, and planned development PD-RS and PD-RM 6-16.

Before Planning Director Derrell Smith tweaked the guidelines, some opponents said the loose language could enable developers to just build “glorified trailer parks.”

Changes include a 1,000-foot buffer between cottage developments.

Each development would be sent to the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission for site plan review to both ensure it meets standards and fits the character of the existing neighborhood.

And no more than two cottages can look the same.

An issue that can’t be regulated by the city is whether the cottages would be owner-occupied or rental properties, Smith said.

Scott Darwin, who lives on Sylvan Drive off North Caraway Road, and is a member of a new group called Northside Coalition for the Betterment of Jonesboro, said he appreciated the city staff’s willingness to work with neighborhood groups.

“Ordinances of such far-reaching magnitude do not come before the city council very often,” Darwin said. “But when they do, the MAPC, city council and the mayor should be certain that all people who will be impacted will have the chance to participate in the creation of this ordinance. It is fundamental to a democracy that such decisions be made openly and with the participation of the general public.”

Another member of the new coalition, Billy Brown of Mays Road, said he appreciated the changes.

“We do not oppose the fundamental concept of cottage housing,” Brown said. “We do, however, wish to present the idea of full disclosure.”

Brown said there should be a specially designated cottage housing zoning designation, rather allowing the developments by right in the other approved zones.

One resident, Shirley Moore, who lives on Mount Vernon Drive, said she saw the concept as an opportunity for more affordable and desirable housing for retired people.

The issue will return to the agenda April 20.

In other business, the council gave final approval to an ordinance proposed by P & H Investments that seeks to abandon a portion of a drainage easement at 2203 E. Parker Road.

Ignacio Islas also gained approval to rezone the seven-acre former Eagles Club property at 305 Airport Road to RS-8 single family residential.

The council heard the first of three required readings of an ordinance that would abandon a five-foot portion of an existing 25-foot drainage easement within the Brendar Village Development, east of Stadium Boulevard, at the request of Citifirst Property Group.

Council members heard the second readings of proposed ordinances that would:

Define and provide zoning classifications for homeless shelters.

Rezone 21 acres adjacent to 3506 Southwest Drive from commercial to RS-6 single family residential. It would provide for 72 single family homes. The property would become part of the 118-acre multi use Southern Hills Development.

Authorize a restaurant private club permit for Supporting Advancement Inc., doing business as Lost Pizza at Hilltop, 3410 E. Johnson Ave. The club boasts of 127 members. The Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Division would also have to give its approval.

Final action on those proposals is scheduled for April 20.

The council also approved resolutions to:

Approve the ballot language for electing the Position 1 council members by ward in the 2022 election.

Create a new video analyst position within the police department to handle video from body-worn cameras. In the case of Freedom of Information Act requests, certain audio and video have to be redacted to prevent the release of personal information.

Approve a $68,145 assessment by the Arkansas Public Entity Risk Management Association.

Approve a partnership with Post Foods in which the company would contribute up to $400,000 of the cost to make rail track improvements.

Amend the 2021 budget to add three firefighter positions.

Man busted with child porn, another sought


HARRISBURG — A Poinsett County man is being held on a $100,000 bond following a joint investigation into his possible possession and distribution of child porn.

Along with Jonesboro’s Internet Crimes Against Children Division, the Poinsett County Sheriff’s Office busted Gary Mann, 64, of Harrisburg, on April 1 for “sharing hundreds of sexually explicit photos and videos of children as young as 12 (years old),” JPD announced Monday.

The files were found during a warrant search at his residence, the department disclosed on Facebook. ICAC’s “undisclosed investigation” is ongoing, public information specialist Sally Smith told The Sun on Tuesday.

Poinsett County District Court Judge Ron Hunter found probable cause Monday to charge Mann with one count of distributing, possessing or viewing of matter depicting sexually explicit conduct involving a child, documents show.

As part of his pretrial release, Mann “may not possess any computer or electronic device capable of accessing internet. (The defendant) may not use (the) internet,” a hearing document read. His next court appearance is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. May 28 at the Poinsett County Courthouse, 401 Market St., Harrisburg.

Because another suspect is sought in JPD’s ongoing investigation, an incident report was not provided to The Sun, Smith said.

“If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison per … illegal image,” JPD’s online announcement read.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Mann remained detained at the Poinsett County Detention Center.

Smith encourages Northeast Arkansans to submit tips regarding Mann’s alleged misconduct or any internet crimes to 870-935-5657. CrimeStoppers of Jonesboro is also receiving tips at 870-935-7867. The tips would be forwarded to investigators with the ICAC division, she said.