Council Meeting Recap

August 22, 2012

[Warning: Gonzo Journalism. This article is biased, cynical, and sarcastic. If you want to know what really happened you’ll need to spend 25¢ on a audio disk available during business hours at City Hall]

The West Fork City Council works for free.  If it were a pay job, one would think they’re working on an hourly rate because they can take two and half hours to do an hour’s worth of work.

The Animal Control Ordinance didn’t get approved; it was misplaced again. The representative from Windstream was a no-show so the time was spent with comments by audience members trying to convince the six holdouts on the council that we are, in fact, living in the twenty first century. One audience member suggested that if they didn’t get with it soon, they might miss the whole internet thing.

Alderman Joan Wright presented a handout of what a web site could look like. There were no comments from the members. Alderman Julie Shafer wanted to know how she could find out when the website committee meets (they’ve been meeting for six months).  No one said the obvious – if we had a website, the time and place of all meetings would be posted there.

They did agree that one master list of people and organizations that should and/or must be informed of meetings to satisfy Freedom of Information requirements was a good idea.  However, consensus began to erode over the question of how to make that list available to the public.  Nothing is ever easy with this group.  It’s as though Open Government is an elusive concept to several (maybe most) of the council members.

They still couldn’t pin down a date for West Fest. There might be a committee for this; they seemed pretty sure about that.   Local businessman Joe Wingate explained to the council that food venders come to the festival in order to make money. More venders allowed means less money for each vendor.  No comment from council.

Harps. The Agenda noted “Application for Sales of Alcohol.”  West Fork Township is dry;  ain’t gonna happen.  Besides that, rumor has it that the Baptists bought up all the liquor store permits years ago. The Observer fact checked that a few years ago.

[THE FACTS: Washington County is a wet county but there are exceptions. The DRY TOWNSHIPS  are Cane Hill, Crawford, Greenland, Price, Starr Hill, Valley, West Fork White River, Winslow and Vinyard and the City of Prairie Grove and City of Farmington.  It’s been that way since 1945. If a township wants to put the issue to be wet on the ballot then 38% of registered voters  will need to sign a ballot initiative. If you want to know more about WEST FORK TOWNSHIP  click here.]

The Harps representative was at the meeting to try to get something settled with their request for a sign ordinance variance. He was at the Planning Commission meeting last week and told to take his request to the council. The council couldn’t figure it out. The Harps Representative, after two visits to West Fork still doesn’t have a decision on the sign. How do you spell dysfunctional?

No budget talk. No treasurer’s  report.  The mayor gave a garden market report.

There were many more people in the audience than usual; some were candidates for office. A video camera was set up in the room.  The Observer/Zephyr didn’t ask who they were – it wasn’t us but we were glad to see that happen.

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Ballot Initiatives Begin

August 16, 2012

 A group of West Fork citizens, frustrated by what they see as the lack of accountability in the West Fork Water and Wastewater Commission, are circulating a petition to have an initiative placed on the November ballot.

If approved by the voters, the initiative would dissolve the current unelected, autonomous, Water Commission and establish a City Water Department under control of the elected Mayor and Council.

A second petition they are circulating, would instruct to City Council to have the city’s financial records audited and brought up to date using the free services of the Arkansas Legislative Audit Committee.  The city currently contracts with a private accounting firm. The city is five years behind on audits. Last year the entire city council, mayor and city attorney travelled to Little Rock to be reprimanded by the Legislative Audit Committee for failing to keep up to date on the audits.

The group, calling themselves “Citizens for Accountability” began collecting signatures Monday and a spokesman for the group says they have about half the needed 110 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot.

If you want more information about the group you can call them at 966-5828, e-mail them at OurCityOurMOney@gmail.com or visit their website, www.CitizensForAccountability.wordpress.com.


What’s the Big Deal?

August 7, 2012

A photo posted on facebook of a refrigerated truck plugged into a city meter at the street department shops on Campbell Street drew over thirty comments. Along with the humor, sarcasm and other irreverent jabber that provide entertainment to any social media topic, some comments expressed concern that the city was giving away electricity.

Newcomers to West Fork politics can be forgiven for voicing their naive outrage that Butch Bartholomew would let this happen. But for long time residents who pay attention, this is just the latest and a comparatively small example of the waste and fiscal irresponsibility to come from Mr. Bartholomew.

There was the fourteen thousand dollars the city paid to remove the condemned house because the building inspector, Bartholomew, errored. The lack of a policy for sewage backing up into someone’s home cost twenty thousand. Don’t forget the quarter million dollars that evaporated from the Water Department from 2006-2009. Tens of thousands of dollars lost in leaky water pipes. Thousands spent for roof repairs to city hall caused by lack of regular maintenance. Most recent is the fifty thousand dollars in franchise fees Bartholomew neglected to collect from the town’s solid waste hauler.

Add that to the hundred thousand dollar plus compensation package Bartholomew gets from the city and it makes a few kilowatts of electricity squandered in a “gentleman’s agreement” hardly seem worth bothering about.


Remove the Sludge

August 2, 2012

REPORT: Water Commission Meeting August 1, 2012

The West Fork Water and Wastewater Commission held their regular monthly meeting at noon yesterday in city hall. The ADEQ has required that the commission state when the wastewater will be flowing to Fayetteville for treatment. The Commission decided to take the full time allowed; three years, hoping the project will be completed by June 2015. There was no discussion of how they plan to accomplish that.

Environmental agencies are insisting the city remove the 41 year accumulation of sewage treatment plant sludge from the two ponds (lagoons) built in 1970. The sludge has never been removed.

Robert White of McClelland Engineers, the commission’s engineer of record, estimates the removal could cost $45,000 or more. The commission will seek a properly certified company to do the job.

“There’s no budget set aside for this project,” said Utility Superintendent, Michael “Butch“ Bartholomew who has been responsible for maintenance of the wastewater treatment plant since it was built.


July 29, 2012

Going with the Flow


WC Observer Editorial June 16,2011

June 23, 2011

Editorial: As West Fork Turns

Posted on 22. Jun, 2011 by admin in City News, Columns, Commentary, Editorials, News, Opinion, West Fork

 

They say the popularity of TV soap operas is waning; two long-running shows were recently canceled. Some suggest the decline is due to a rise in popularity of facebook games while others say it is due to the end of the middle class which means fewer stay-at-home moms – they’re all at work.

We have another spin: The demise of soaps could be blamed on the rise of weekly community newspapers all across the country. Using West Fork as an example, these small-town papers may be pulling soap viewers away from TV fiction to read about the real-life episodic drama unfolding at the nearest city hall. (We’re making this up.)
But city hall offers quality drama with real characters and it seems like every week provides the reader with new twists, turns and turmoil. It’s easy to get confused, particularly because of the interweaving timelines and overlapping characters.

Maybe this will help:

There are two main plots to follow at West Fork City Hall (scores of subplots), the city audits and the financial crisis with the water department. The audit story actually began years ago when the auditor for the city became ill and the council tried to put the audits off until he recovered. In 2007, the State told the city to get the audits caught up, but after four years, the city remains five years in arrears on a mandatory financial audit.  Last year, to their credit, the city council had two years of audits completed with a private CPA firm, but that only got the city through 2005.
In Dec. 2010, Mr. “B”(city business manager at the time) signed a contract with the same firm to perform audits for 2007-2010 worth $28,000 without a budget adjustment.  The contract somehow never came up in conversation and the new mayor and her city council didn’t know about the contract for months.  Never mind that the city ordinances call for a $10,000 limit on what the business manager can contract for.

Meanwhile in January, the council authorized the city’s new Mayor Hime to get five years of audits done free by the State, but apparently they never took the task on because they learned of the CPA contract before the mayor or the council.  Last week, the state’s auditing committee sent certified letters to the mayor and council members telling them to come to Little Rock for a little talk. To get ready for that meeting, the council held a special meeting last week and decided they were caught between a rock and a hard place and should just honor the contract at $28,000.  They had to authorize the use of reserve funds to fund the cost since only $9,000 was ever budgeted for audits this year.

​It’s hard to know when the water story begins.  What is known is that the utility had $225,000 when 2006 began and somehow over the past five years, ​went through all of that and siphoned off money from two bond reserves to fund operations.  They were spending more than they were taking in, but the council never knew.  The three member water commission didn’t even meet for 18 months between 2009 and the summer of 2010. Seems that in addition to a leaky budget, the utility has also battled unaccounted water loss, which averaged 30.5 percent in 2010 and topped 42 percent in February of this year.  Add to that a recession and you can see where this is headed.
Then came Friday the 13th, May 13, 2011 when there was no money in the bank account for pay day. That’s when $10,000 was transferred from the general fund to the water department and here’s the kicker.  Neither t​he mayor, nor the council knew or approved the transfer.  The money was transferred by City Treasurer /Water Dept. Secretary Kristie Drymon after she was directed to do so by Mr. “B” (yes, the same one). Their lawyer said the transfer wasn’t legal, but when the council held a special meeting to retroactively approve the transfer, they also got hit up for an additional $15,000 loan and said a 14 percent rate increase would be needed to fix the mess.  Did we mention that neither Drymon or Bartholomew thought to bring up the looming financial crisis just three days before when making their monthly reports at the monthly city council meeting?

As in any good soap, new cast members are emerging.  Former West Fork mayor, Virgil Blackmon was appointed just days before the Friday the 13th transfer.  His first meeting was a special water commission meeting which saw him championing a rate increase.  Ironically, the only guy who’s spent any time on the commission, Greg Tabor, tried to put the brakes on the rate increase and wanted to address the utility’s expenses.  Considering $200,000 in salaries for two part time and two full time employees, he might be on to something.

There was a public meeting scheduled prior to the regular council meeting.

The over-arching theme in all this revolves around the same old suspects – lack of accountability, lack of transparency in government, disregard for the rule of law, and plain old fiduciary neglect by a lot of people. Somebody was asleep at the switch and nobody noticed. This could be a train wreck. ​

Like any serial drama, each week leaves us wondering what will happen next.

Will anybody be held accountable for anything? Will there be a big surprise for the council at Little Rock? Will the water commission have the guts to make some tough choices before asking its water customers to cough up 14 percent more each month?  Will any new policies and procedures come out of ​these messes?  Does somebody know something nobody else knows about something?

Whatever happens the Washington County Observer will be there reporting the news.

​Stay tuned; details every Thursday.


Nature

January 10, 2010

New Columnist joins Team

The Zephyr is honored to introduce local naturalist, historian and writer Joseph C. Neal  to its readers.   Joe column, “Western Arkansas Bird Notes “  will appear every other week  in the new Washington County Observer

WESTERN ARKANSAS BIRD NOTES

 1/6/2010

Joseph C. Neal

My friend Joe Woolbright from Siloam Springs holds forth mornings at a café named Kathy’s Corner. He is more of the liberal persuasion, but his table mates tend toward Rush. So, with the coming of ice & snow in the past few weeks, folks all around Joe at the table have driven the icy-snowy roads to Kathy’s, bringing with them questions like, “Well Woolbright, I guess that finishes off the global warming idea” etc. Joe points out that climate change is not about a single event or year. It’s about long term trends. In terms of his breakfast friends, he might as well just go out and howl at the cold moon.

Birds are indicators of a changing climate. We now find birds here regularly that once spent the winter south of the Ozarks. On the recently concluded Fayetteville Christmas Bird count, for example, we found 13 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, an unheard-of event until the 1980s.

I think about this when I’m out birding. On January 4 I walked the perimeter of Chesney Prairie Natural Area near Siloam Springs. I found American Tree Sparrows in several spots during the afternoon, including one flock of at least 30 birds. They flushed up & brightly decorated a barbed wire fence and the weeds and little bushes holding it up. I also drove county roads around Chesney. Much of the landscape is ice/snow covered & frozen, so many of the field birds have turned to open roadsides, where there is ample food spilled from poultry feed trucks. Savannah Sparrows in 1s, 2, and flocks were along & on the road, joined by White-crowned Sparrows, Harris’s Sparrows, and others. Lots of meadowlarks have joined the roadside feast. In order to separate Eastern & Western Meadowlarks, I kept trying to look at malar areas behind the bill (more yellow on Westerns, for example), but my fingers got too stiff to comfortably use the binoculars. It is a good opportunity, though, if your fingers can take it.

In one spot I found 25 Horned Larks, similarly employed chasing down waste grain. These birds were along a private road into an egg production facility. I was watching them from an open & obviously public road, looking for Lapland Longspurs among them. Soon, two business-like, stiff-faced youngish gentlemen drove out from the egg plant, parked right snug up behind me & requested that I state my business. I would have thought my binoculars would have sufficed, but then they could also be used for spying…

Finally, I have received two emails with photographs from friends in Madison County with two unusual birds at their feeder. The first is a possible Spotted Towhee (a western bird unusual here) and the second a pair of Rusty Blackbirds, from the far north, where they nest in the Boreal Forest.