It’s a sad and disturbing day when the Craighead County clerk is arrested, jailed and charged with stealing nearly $1.6 million in taxpayer funds.
And that may just be the tip of the iceberg.
However, it shouldn’t be surprising, considering the long track record of corruption and incompetence in county government here and across the Natural State.
While the number of recent cases – some just downright stupidity – is indefensible, the real culprit in county government should be obvious to all – it’s simply an antiquated form of government that needs to be assigned to the trash bin of history.
I’ve seen some bad examples of local government in my 38-year newspaper career, but Craighead County government tops the list of most ill-conceived and least accountable.
When an individual government has elected officials running their own bureaucratic fiefdoms outside the purview of any local oversight and accountability, corruption and incompetence is allowed to flourish. In Craighead County Clerk Kade Holliday’s case, it included sheltered bank accounts stocked with taxpayer cash ripe for the stealing.
I’d be willing to bet less than 2 percent of the population could list by name all 13 elected individuals on the Craighead County Quorum Court, which sets policy but has virtually no control over other elected officials’ offices.
The left hand literally has no idea what the right hand is doing because there is no one in charge of the overall governmental organization – most especially not the justices of the peace on the quorum court. With 13 basically anonymous members, who’s to blame for this and the many other debacles in recent years?
Because the county judge is only over the road department and county buildings, his position at the seat of county government is as a figure head, also with little power over any of the other elected officials – several of whom routinely fail to show up to work or attend quorum court meetings.
That’s a recipe that allows incompetence and corruption of government officials to run amok.
That’s not to say that several of our elected officials aren’t fine, upstanding citizens doing their best for Craighead County residents. But it’s more a roll of the dice than a sure bet.
County Judge Marvin Day has done an admirable job to address oversight problems within county government, but he can only do so much under the antiquated laws that govern county government in Arkansas.
Looking at cases in the recent past we find:
• Former County Clerk Nancy Nelms continually failed to pay federal withholding taxes on county employees’ payroll in a timely manner.
The county was so far behind that the Internal Revenue Service threatened to put a lien on the Craighead County Courthouse. When her indiscretions were exposed, she continued to fail to pay the withholding taxes to the feds.
Overall, Nelms had racked up more than $288,000 in fines, penalties and interest on top of the back taxes. That debacle had gone on for nearly seven years.
The worst part: She was replaced by 24-year-old Kade Holliday. Talk about a slap in the taxpayers’ face.
• Then there was former Craighead County Elections Coordinator Sandra Taylor, who failed to bill and collect more than $262,000 for city and school district elections during a six-year period. How was that allowed to happened for more than six years? Simple answer: Nobody was paying attention.
• Then there was former Craighead County Collector Marsha Phillips, who continually failed to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in delinquent taxes. Didn’t even try. When pressed about why, Phillips gave one of the most revealing reasons ever published in a newspaper: She didn’t have time to collect delinquent taxes because she was too busy running for re-election.
Her re-election efforts failed as miserably as her tax collecting efforts.
• And lest we forget current Craighead County Circuit Court Clerk Candace Edwards, who incurred thousands of dollars in credit card late fees and interest charges for not paying off her office’s credit card in a timely manner, losing receipts and using it to charge personal expenses.
Edwards then used funds from another county account to pay off the credit card balance, taking the situation from bad to worse. Arkansas Legislative Audit found Edwards had violated the law.
Scott Ellington, the 2nd Judicial District prosecuting attorney, opened an investigation into findings that Edwards broke the law.
“This matter is under active investigation pertaining to the legislative audit referral,” Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington said in a statement back in December of last year. “We know it’s a case of great public interest and for that reason we are being very deliberate and thorough. With that being said, we won’t have anything more to say until the appropriate time.”
Apparently, it really wasn’t all that pressing. There’s still no word from Ellington, who will take a seat as a new circuit court judge next Jan. 1.
There have been several other cases of incompetence and corruption in Craighead County government in recent years, but you get the point.
An administrative form of government headed and run by professionals and legislated by five elected officials would greatly benefit the taxpayers of Craighead County. While that would take state legislative action, it’s something our lawmakers in Little Rock need to seriously examine if county government in Arkansas is ever to improve.
Then again, the taxpayers are willing to support eight school districts in a county that needs no more than one or two to operate efficiently. Millions would be saved annually.
I’m far more confident the status quo will prevail, and headlines like those of last week will continue.
On the bright side, a reader called our office on Wednesday to say she had accidentally taken two papers out of a Jonesboro Sun rack on Sunday in Trumann, but had only paid for one.
She wanted to know how she could get the $2 to us to pay for her mistake.
In this day and age, how many among us are that honest? Not many, I dare say.
We told her the next time she buys a paper to pay for two. I’m betting that newspaper rack comes up $2 on the plus side today.