Quorum Court: Collector may return to courthouse
Wed, 07/08/2020 - 1:30pm classified@mont...
By Melissa Orrell
Discussion over the barring of Drew County Collector Tonya Loveless and her staff from the Drew County Courthouse was the reason for a special call meeting of the Drew County Quorum Court Monday, July 6, at 6 p.m. in the Courthouse courtroom. Loveless, who appeared via zoom with attorney Brian Johnson of Hot Springs representing her, will be allowed to return to the Courthouse and her office on Friday, July 10, following a motion by Justice of the Peace Rene Knowles.
The meeting began with Drew County Judge Robert Akin explaining to the Justices of the Peace what happened between Monday, June 29, and the meeting. According to Akin, on Monday, June 29, six of the seven elected officials, along with employees on the first, second, third and some employees on the fourth floor were all tested for COVID-19. Upon consultation with the Arkansas Department of Health, Akin was advised to test all employees on the first floor, where the positive case in the Courthouse originated. He was recommended to test those on the second floor since employees on the first and second floor frequently interact and was told the third floor was questionable as to whether you wanted to test them or not. However, Judge Bynum Gibson, who works out of an office on the third floor, was also tested, as well as the one employee on the floor. Members of the Sheriff’s Department who may have come in contact with the employee were also tested.
“We had participation of six of the elected officials,” said Akin, referring to Loveless and her not taking the test on June 29. “With the testing not occurring I don’t know where to go next. What I don’t want is, I don’t want a snowball effect to our county services, in which we are all operating.”
Akin continued, stressing the need to do something to get the courthouse “serving the public in a safe manner.”
After conversation about how to proceed with the meeting and trying to solve some technical difficulties with the sound of Loveless and her legal representation, Justice Rene Knowles, asked to speak.
“I make a motion that the Collector’s Office, Collector Tonya Loveless and her staff have followed the guidelines set forth by Drew County Ordinance 2020-05, the CDC and the governor of Arkansas. She, Tonya Loveless, Collector, after being self-quarantined for 14 days, may reenter back into her office in the Drew County Courthouse Collector’s Office. If at that time Tonya Loveless has no symptoms and her staff may return to work on Monday the 13th, she can return to work Friday the 10th, they can return to work Monday the 13th in the Drew County Collector’s Office since they have all been quarantined for 14 days and at that time show no symptoms. They will be paid by public pay guidelines.”
Carole Bulloch seconded the motion. Voting began when Justice of the Peace Orlando Jones asked for the motion to be re-read. It was at this time County Attorney Cliff Gibson interrupted before voting continued.
“It may be important for you to know something here,” he stated. “That is the Judge has barred Ms. Loveless and her personnel for refusal to take the COVID-19 test as recommended by the Health Department. The County Judge, not this court, has authority over the property of the county. Consequently, that is a decision, about readmission of Ms. Loveless and her staff, is something you need to address to him but not by ordinance or by resolution of the Quorum Court. I just want you to know who has the authority.”
According to Gibson, when questioned, Akin can require Loveless to take a test, based on the recommendation of the Health Department and further explained that part of what was in the motion made by Knowles was not within the authority of the court.
“I am just reporting that to you, so you know, that you may be adopting something that is contrary to the constitution of Arkansas, specifically amendment 55,” stated Gibson.
Amendment 55, Article 3 of the Arkansas Constitution, Arkansas Annotated Code 14-14-1101 states in paragraph (a) “PERFORMANCE. The General Assembly determines that the executive powers of the county judge as enumerated in Arkansas Constitution Amendment 55, 3, are to be performed by him or her in an executive capacity and not by order of the county court.”
Further in code 14-14-1101, Section 3, paragraph A, the custody and care of county property is given to the county judge.
When questioned about Loveless’ rights by Knowles, Gibson pointed to a letter from the Arkansas Association of Counties in response to a letter written to the association by Loveless. Gibson said the letter stated that she could be required to test before being allowed back into the courthouse. Gibson also pointed to federal law that allows and employer to test an employee before returning to work. Knowles asked who Loveless, as an elected official, who was her employer. According to Gibson, Loveless is an employee of the county.
Discussion then turned to the accuracy of test and the recommendations of the CDC and the State.
According to guidance from the CDC, employees may return to work after a negative test, a 14-day quarantine or, if they are deemed an essential worker, they may return immediately as long as a mask is worn and social distancing and other measures are taken to reduce the possibility of spread.
It was at this time, Loveless’ attorney, Johnson was able to make a statement.
Johnson contends that under 14-14-1102, the county judge has no authority over an elected official or her employees.
Section 5 paragraph (B)(i) states, “County or subdivisions thereof, for the purpose of this sections, means all departments except departments administratively assigned to other elected officials of the county, boards and subordinate service districts created by county ordinance.” In the same section, paragraph (b) states, “The jurisdiction to purchase the labor of an individual for salary or wages employed by other elected officials of the county shall be vested in each respective elected official.”
Johnson stated Akin had no right to stop Loveless from doing her job and that she never said she would not do her job.
“She has said she is going to follow the most accurate and safe means in returning to her office,” said Johnson, “which would be quarantine, as provided by CDC guidelines. Her and her employees.”
After arguing the legalities of whether Loveless can be made to take a test, the accuracy of tests and what was the safest way to deal with positive tests, the discussion turned back to the days after notification was made of the positive case in the Courthouse. During this discussion, Akin was asked about a statement made on Saturday, June 27, before any final decisions had been made. It was at this time, Akin said he made the statement that going forward, employees would have to take a test and if they did not take a test they would have to quarantine for 14 days.
Akin said, at the time, it was the assumption that the test or the 14 day quarantine would be the decision moving forward. Akin said after speaking with the Health Department, he decided to test all employees with worry of not being able to conduct county business if the Courthouse had to shut down for two weeks every time someone tested positive. According to Akin, he was told the test used to test employees at the courthouse had an 80% accuracy rating with a false positive being more common than a false negative and that he had spoken prematurely when he said employees would have to test or quarantine.
Voting continued at this time, the motion passed with 8 yes votes and Justice of the Peace Frank Appleberry casting the single no vote.
Following the vote and discussion of paperwork needed to pay the employees for the days in quarantine, Akin stated that if another positive case was found in the Courthouse, all employees would be tested.