Washington County Court Fails Its Duty and Presumes to Infringe on Constitutional Rights

Joseph Wood, Washington County Judge

In an ideal world, government provides for its citizens by addressing problems so complex or so large in scope that citizens alone or even in groups cannot address them. Our tax dollars support government agencies that regulate the costs of necessary utilities, the purity of our food and drugs, and the safety of our mass transportation systems such as airlines and trains, among many other things. Under our U. S. Constitution, matters of personal conscience such as privacy and religious belief are left to the individual.

At the local level, we here in Washington County, Arkansas now find ourselves with a county government which has forgotten—if indeed they ever knew—their proper role. For example, about a year ago, the county government closed their south Fayetteville hazardous waste collection center. There was no public notice of this decision.

Meanwhile, a resolution introduced by Quorum Court Republican Patrick Deacon and passed through committee last night quotes a Bible passage and presumes to embed certain religious beliefs into county law. A more experienced county judge would have stopped this presumption in its tracks.

A deeper look at the county judge’s tenure finds that upon taking office, he not only fired experienced county employees but replaced them with cronies from his former position at Ecclesia College. He gutted several of the county’s departments and ended up defending his actions in court.[1] Environmental affairs, tasked with protecting our natural springs, streams, and the rest of our land, was reduced to one employee. The county archives, a priceless repository of old deeds, marriage records, and other arcane and fascinating bits of our local history, was relieved of its professional archivist and its open hours reduced to a few hours one day a week. Other departments suffered similar cutbacks, all in the name of saving money and, to the Republican mantra, reducing government.

Hazardous waste isn’t something to toy with. These subtle poisons are found in virtually every household—cleaning products, solvent-based paints, pesticides, weed-killers, and other garden chemicals, batteries, motor oil, kerosene, swimming pool or hot tub chemicals, pharmaceuticals (all medicines), obsolete computer equipment and televisions, thermometers, barometers, thermostats, fluorescent tubes and compact fluorescent globes (CFLs), and more. Educating the public about household hazardous waste (HHW) over the last thirty years has been a major effort for community recycling and solid waste departments.

Washington County had made some headway not only in educating residents about the nature of HHW but also in providing a convenient drop-off location where such items could be safely collected for appropriate disposal. This has meant that tons of these chemicals have NOT ended up being poured on the ground or dumped into landfills where someday, no matter how great the liners, they will leak into the ground. Chemicals in the ground don’t just sit there. They don’t decompose into harmless biomass. They migrate through fragmented limestone and clay and every other type of strata until at some point they join groundwater. And sooner or later, that groundwater becomes the water we must drink.

Now perhaps Judge Wood and his cohort were not aware of the dangers inherent in HHW. Perhaps their only thought was to make other use of that small building on the county’s south campus that would save the county a few dollars. (The building is currently used for storage.) And perhaps their thought was that any solid waste issue, including HHW, properly fell into the domain of the Boston Mountain Solid Waste District (BMSWD).

Whatever the considerations which entered into the decision to close the HHW collection center, these considerations did not include the cardinal rule about the safe disposal of HHW: disposal should be convenient for the greatest number of people.

In a society acculturated to the concept of convenience, it is the burden of public officials to ensure that the solution to important problems like proper HHW disposal is made as convenient as possible. Number 1 consideration should be to accommodate the operation of a facility which has become well known and well used by area residents.

When the county closed its HHW collection center in south Fayetteville, BMSWD scrambled to open a new collection center in Prairie Grove. However, Prairie Grove has a population of about 5,800 people whereas Fayetteville’s population is over 85,000, which raises the question of who is being served with this location change. The tenuous justification for the move hinted that it wasn’t the county’s responsibility to collect HHW for Fayetteville. Also, that Prairie Grove was more rural and therefore more suitable for HHW collection from county residents.

Questions posed in early April to Judge Wood were diverted to Brian Lester, formerly county attorney and now assistant to the judge.

Q: How much money did the county spend on the south Fayetteville HHW collection center?

Didn’t know.

Q: What was the tonnage collected annually at the Fayetteville HHW center? Has that tonnage increased or decreased in the year since the south Fayetteville facility closed?

Didn’t have any data.

Q: Why did the county not notify Fayetteville solid waste officials about the planned termination of the south Fayetteville site and ask for a cost sharing solution?

No answer.

Q: Is the county’s population center at or near Prairie Grove?

A: No, the center is just south of Fayetteville.

Mr. Lester alleged that BMSWD now offers local HHW pickup at various outlying communities such as Elkins. Not true. The district’s plan for HHW collection is that if a community decides it needs a HHW collection, it will provide a location and staff and the district will provide education and disposal of said waste. At the present time, the only HHW collection service in the county is a weekly one-day collection event in Fayetteville, which began AFTER early April when we circulated our questions to not only Mr. Lester, but also a quorum court member, BMSWD employees, and Fayetteville solid waste representatives.

BMSWD confirms that they received no advance warning that the county judge planned to terminate their contract to use the county’s building in south Fayetteville for the HHW collection center. Likewise, Fayetteville solid waste officials confirm that they received no warning or offer of cost sharing or other arrangements to secure the south Fayetteville location for the program.

No one advising Judge Wood or his staff on this decision seems to have considered that lots of residents of small towns and rural areas of Washington County used the Fay’vl HHW facility because Fayetteville is the largest city and the county seat and serves as the shopping, entertainment, and employment destination for most of the small town/rural residents of the entire county. Which, obviously, means Fayetteville is the most convenient HHW disposal location for most county citizens.

The allegation that Prairie Grove is a more convenient disposal location for rural citizens than Fayetteville is a fabrication based on the need to cover ass after the issue was raised with hard questions.

Government and only government has the power and scope to make decisions that provide protection for the region’s water supply for decades and centuries to come. Unfortunately, Judge Wood and his cohort’s interests seem to center on his religious beliefs and how to best impose those beliefs on individual county residents.

Despite Judge Wood’s administrative experience in various posts, his primary interest seems to follow his Masters of Christian Leadership degree (2016). Aside from imposing religious beliefs on county government, Joseph Wood’s righteousness apparently suffers lapses.

“In the 2016 race for County Judge, former Ecclesia board member Joseph Wood replaced Republican nominee Micah Neal when he abruptly withdrew from the race.  Neal later pled guilty to federal bribery charges over state funds he directed to the school.  Wood’s first actions as judge were to fire employees without cause, and violate county policy by hiring Ecclesia cronies without posting the position. It’s not gotten any better from there. Despite running on fiscally conservative credentials, Wood has presided over dwindling reserves and a budget shortfall in the county.”[2]

Not only Neal, but another state senator Jon Woods (appealing a fifteen-year sentence) and a well-known lobbyist Rusty Cranford (serving a seven year sentence) were part of this scheme to divert tax dollars to a religious school while lining their own pockets. As investigators ultimately discovered, the scam involved sixteen people in two states.

“As part of his guilty plea, Neal admitted that, between January 2013 and January 2015, while serving in the Arkansas House of Representatives, he conspired with an Arkansas state senator [Jon Woods –ed.] to use their official positions to appropriate government money known as General Improvement Funds (GIF) to a pair of non-profit entities in exchange for bribes.”

While Joseph Wood may not have been complicit in this scheme, his position as Ecclesia College board member made him responsible for the activities of its representatives. If he knew about this illegal scheme, perhaps he viewed it in the same way he views the unconstitutional overreach of the proposed resolution declaring the county ‘pro-life’ – that the end justifies the means. The end, in this case, would be a ‘Christian nation.’

Joseph Wood announced in May 2021 that he is running for lieutenant governor, a position one step away from the power of state leadership. In his lengthy press release announcing his candidacy, Wood extolls his career and adds his blessings to the Trump presidency:

“President Trump will go down in history as one of the greatest Presidents because he pushed ahead in the face of adversity and delivered results. Arkansas needs a proven leader for the future of Arkansas. I am running as a strategic thinker and leader who consistently delivers results. I am running as a conservative, committed to faith, family, and fighting for what’s possible in Arkansas.”

The tenure of Judge Wood has been a black mark on our county’s reputation. If elected to state office, this man and his supporters will only drag the state further down, and we’re already scraping the bottom.

We aren’t the only person to speak out about egregious behavior by Republicans on the Quorum Court. This letter to the editor was published in the Northwest Arkansas edition of the Democrat-Gazette on February 7, 2021. Please note that this Patrick Deakins is the same member of the court who put forth the pro-life resolution cited above.

“Public’s voice provided little time in meetings

“On Tuesday, Feb. 9, after months of the public calling for a public discussion regarding over $4 million in CARES Act relief funds being sent to Washington County, the public was finally offered an opportunity for discussion. Or so we thought.

“I was excited for this opportunity as my own Justice of the Peace, Lance Johnson, will not respond to my other attempts to reach him. At the beginning of the meeting, JP Patrick Deakins was elected chair of the committee, then rudely and sarcastically breezed his way through the entire agenda and insisted the only time for public comment would be at the very end, even though an agenda item was named for “public discussion.” At the end, under a brand new rule, only 12 minutes were allowed total for the entire agenda, 10 items in total.

“Five members of the community, in a county of over 230,000, were allowed to speak. Five. And, the last person speaking was yelled over and cut off, on an item that hundreds of us have waited months to discuss.

“I hope the public is aware that whether for or against any items, we have been completely shut out of participating in our local government. This 12-minute rule applies to all county business. The county received “reimbursement” for over $4 million dollars in funds they claim they spent on covid-related expenses, yet detailed as their justification were expenses that were budgeted prior to the pandemic. They have hijacked our tax dollars and our democracy. That is our money and our Quorum Court, and we are not allowed to have an opinion? This should rock every one of us to our core and they should be ashamed of themselves.

“Start talking to your neighbors, friends or family about running. We have a Quorum Court to take back.” Written by ReBecca Graham.

~~~

See https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2019/apr/12/corruption-case-spans-16-people-2-state/


[1] See https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2018/03/30/washington-county-official-resigns-amidst-lawsuit-over-county-judge-joseph-woods-hiring-practices

[2] http://www.forfayetteville.com/2018-elections/washington-county-races

8 Comments

  1. This is beautiful. People should save this and use it and portions of it for political pressure during the next election at the very least. Thank you.

    Reply

  2. Thank you. I attended the committee meeting where the anti-woman, so-called pro life religious resolution was jammed through. I realized then that I knew little about county government. This posting is a big help.

    Reply

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