Attorney Chris Bradley from the Arkansas Municipal League in Little Rock appeared before City Council Monday night to answer a range of questions, most dealing with an ongoing lawsuit between the city and resident Nellie Clark. The problem goes back a year, when Public Works inadvertently forced sewage back into Clark's house while attempting to flush her lines with city equipment. Although city employees did help clean up the mess, Clark has subsequently sued the city.
Bradley said although normally a city has what is called tort immunity, in other words protection from lawsuits, Little Rock lost sovereign immunity during the 1960s in a case where a city vehicle caused injury to an individual. As a result, Arkansas cities are now required to carry $25,000 of insurance against property damage.
Although Eureka Springs filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing it was not a case of damage caused by a city vehicle, the judge's decision was to deny the motion and allow the case to proceed.
At this point, three things can happen: either the case will go to court in the normal way, or the city will settle out of court with Clark, or the city can file what is known as an interlocutory appeal, arguing the case needs to go on to the state supreme court for a decision.
Bradley expressed the broader downside of losing the case in court. "If the case is lost by the city, it potentially affects not only Eureka Springs but ever town and city in Arkansas," he said. "The decision, that using a city vehicle made the city liable for the sewage overflow, would be so extraordinarily broad that it could affect a fire engine trying to put out a fire, if damage occurred -- they didn't do it soon enough, or they break something in the process of putting out the fire. Then does that fall under the responsibility of the city? The judge said he sure would like to see this settled out of court."
Asked by Alderman Ken Pownall how the city would go about settling, Bradley replied they would simply approach the court and ask their motion to have the case dismissed be dropped, and then go from there.
In any case, the city would be obligated to pay only the $25,000 covered by insurance.
The subject of voting by ward, rather than the current system, continued unabated from last meeting. Some on council continue to argue it only makes sense that people choose their council representatives by ward, rather than nominating by ward and then being allowed to vote for anybody on the ballot.
The sticking point, as expressed by Alderman James DeVito and others, is that they feel the issue ought to be put to a vote of the people and not decided by city council.
"This issue, how people vote, should be left to them, not us," said DeVito.
Alderman Lany Ballance replied that if all matters like this were left to the people to decide,
women still not have the vote and blacks would still have to drink in different fountains.
DeVito commented blacks' and women's rights had nothing to do with the issue at hand, voting by ward.
The voting by ward ordinance did not get a second reading at the table that night, and several aldermen suggested a public hearing would be the next best step in going forward.
In another melodramatic turn, council came to blows metaphorically at least over a demand made last meeting council to have Police Chief Earl Hyatt come before them this meeting to justify his staffing budget.
Ballance in particular has been critical of the fact the city's police and fire departments have budgets she feels are in excess of what is needed for a city with a population of just over 2,000.
Mayor Morris Pate in a rare veto declined the council's request. Reading from the city policy handbook, Pate pointed out he as mayor had the administrative authority to not only appoint and remove department heads, but he also approves all hiring of city employees. The council has no authority in this arena, and especially since the council had no stated reason for its request, he was saying no.
Failing to overturn Pate's veto, Ballance immediately added to next meeting's agenda the question of why the mayor is the one who has the authority to hire and fire, rather than council.
Pate also vetoed a request by council to put a line item in the city budget for cemetery funding, explaining funds were permanently in place for cemetery. Although the cemetery commission had argued the funds were untouchable, the mayor's research indicated otherwise.