Thursday news roundup | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thursday news roundup

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 5:00 PM

A bunch of late stuff to relate:

* PULASKI/NLR SCHOOL WOES: The Pulaski County School District AND the North Little Rock School District face a fiscal distress finding by the state Education Department. The Pulaski District has scheduled an emergency board meeting tonight to discuss it. Maybe KIPP could take it over. More details here. The district, which got a calamitous audit report in 2009. hasn't made sufficient progress, the state Education Department thinks. Here's the letter notifying the Pulaski district of the department finding and a May 9 state Board of Education meeting on it. Here's another letter with further details on district problems.

Here's the state's fiscal distress letter that went to the North Little Rock district. Here's an earlier letter outlining some specifics, including an unreconciled bank account. Could the state take over TWO of the state's biggest school districts? UPDATE: If I read correctly, NLR is making a point of noting that this week's notice is based on exceptions in 2008 and 2009 audits, not current practices.

Said Department spokesman Seth Blomeley:

We've given each district time to correct problems and provide evidence to us of such action. But they have not done that to our satisfaction. We have worked closely with each district and each district has been cooperative and understands our role.

We're not being punitive. We're doing our job to ensure the integrity of the education system in the districts for the children. We hope this will be a wake-up call for the districts and we will make every effort to work with them to correct the problems.

* CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING: Doesn't look like it will get worked out by tomorrow. But the House Democrats' bill is in a position to be pulled out of Senate Committee by a majority vote. It couldn't be passed tomorrow, when the session is supposed to more or less close, without an unlikely rules suspension. But the Senate can reconvene before the formal end of the session in late April and vote on the bill. I'll try to update this this evening, but I have some places to go. FYI: This is NOT about Fayetteville. Resistance in the Senate comes from Democratic senators and where THEY want to be. As I've said all along — and I think Republicans actually harmed themselves by their focus — LOTS more people are affected by redistricting than Fayetteville. Look to South Arkansas, for starters.

* MARRIAGE BLOWUP: Sangeeta Mann filed for divorce Tuesday from Dr. Randeep Mann, convicted in a plot to bomb the chairman of the state Medical Board. He's serving a life prison term. Sangeeta Mann is free while appealing convictions for obstructing the prosecution. Mann seeks a no-fault divorce on ground of 18 months separation. There is some rank speculation in legal circles that the divorce could be strategic, in terms of protecting some of the Manns' assets in a property division from potential legal action against him.

* LU HARDIN: The Arkansas Supreme Court accepted the former UCA president's voluntary surrender of his law license. Its order said he acknowledged the federal fraud charges to which he pleaded guilty constituted serious misconduct.

* COCAINE BLUES: The Cabot bookie whose case was entangled with indictments of a couple of former North Little Rock alderman got 10 years in the federal prison today on cocaine-related charges.

* LOTTERY LOSERS: Bills to ban lottery vending machines and to modestly increase spending from lottery proceeds for a program to prevent gambling addiction failed in House committee today. The Arkansas Lottery wants to keep the machines. Sen. Sue Madison, who sponsored the measure, said she understood the desire to protect scholarship money but that further thought should be given to risk of children using the vending machines and the dangers of problem gambling.

* DELAY FOR HOMELESS AGENCY: Because three of nine commissioner won't be attending the meeting, SOAR, the agency hoping to put on office for its homeless outreach program on West Roosevelt Road has delayed consideration of its application before the Capitol Zoning District Commission. This is the program City Director Erma Hendrix is fiercely resisting. It's not a shelter, but an office for an agency that seeks homeless where they live to offer services.

* TIMBER DAMAGES REVERSED: The state Game and Fish Commission reports a federal appeals panel has overturned a $5.8 million damage award it won for timber damage caused by Army Corps of Engineers water management that flooded the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area. Game and Fish may appeal. More on jump.

NEWS RELEASE

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission may be appealing yesterday’s opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit that overturned a lower court award on millions of dollars of timber damage to its Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area.

On July 1, 2009, Judge Charles F. Lettow of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims decided in a 61-page order that the AGFC was entitled to $5.8 million plus accrued interest and costs of litigation from the U.S. Government. Yesterday’s 2-1 vote by a 3-judge panel of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals nullified the trial judge’s decision.

The AGFC filed suit against the U.S. on March 18, 2005, to recoup the value of dead and dying timber and to restore areas where timber died on Dave Donaldson Black River WMA, which covers about 24,000 acres in Clay, Randolph and Greene counties. During the 11-day trial in December 2008, which included a site inspection of parts of the WMA, the AGFC was able to prove that the Army Corps of Engineers’ management of water from the Black River and Missouri’s Clearwater Lake caused significant damage to the WMA’s bottomland hardwood timber.

AGFC Chief Legal Counsel Jim Goodhart said, “Yesterday’s opinion apparently allows the United States to escape all liability for its super-induced flooding that permanently destroyed or degraded thousands of hardwood trees on the WMA, totaling nearly 18 million board feet of timber.”

Goodhart said the AGFC agrees with dissenting Judge Pauline Newman that the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires compensation for such a taking. “We are carefully studying both the majority and dissenting opinions and considering options for continuing this fight on behalf of the sportsmen and citizens of our state” Goodhart said. Commission attorneys anticipate recommending to the Game and Fish Commissioners and Director that the agency petition for a rehearing by the full 16-member Federal Circuit Court of Appeals and, if necessary, seek review by the United States Supreme Court.

The case involves the Clearwater Lake water-control plan of 1950 that the Corps was following until 1993, when the Corps began deviating from the plan to accommodate farming requests from within the Missouri boot heel region. The water deviations caused increased flooding on Black River WMA, particularly during the summer growing season.
By the mid 1990s, the AGFC had repeatedly warned the Corps about flooding and potential hardwood damage on Black River WMA. In the Federal Claims Court ruling, Judge Lettow agreed that had the Corps “performed a reasonable investigation of the effects the deviations would have on downstream water levels, it would have been able to predict both that the deviations would increase the levels of the Black River in the management area and that the flooding caused by these increased levels would damage timber.”

Instead, it was only in 2001 that the Corps performed actual water testing near the WMA of the modified water-control plan it had been using since 1993 and determined it could no longer continue the practice because of the potential for significant impact on natural resources. The Corps then returned to the water management plan used before 1993.

From late 1999 to the filing of the lawsuit in early 2005, the AGFC attempted to negotiate with the Corps, hoping to receive compensation and avoid a lawsuit before the statute of limitations ran out. In the end, the lawsuit was unavoidable.

The corridor of bottomland hardwood timber in Dave Donaldson Black River WMA is the largest contiguous block of forest along the Black River in Missouri and Arkansas, and is among the largest contiguous areas of bottomland hardwood timber remaining in the Upper Mississippi Alluvial Valley. Much of the WMA land was purchased by the AGFC in the 1950s and 1960s to preserve bottomland hardwoods and provide wintering habitat for migratory waterfowl. The AGFC operates the WMA as a wildlife and hunting preserve, placing special emphasis on the waterfowl that pass through the area in the late fall and early winter on the Mississippi River flyway.
Flooding of this green tree reservoir at specific times during the winter months enhances waterfowl hunting opportunities and serves as a valuable food source for wintering migrating birds. It was the long term flooding caused by the Army Corps of Engineers that AGFC had no control over that has taken its toll on this valuable resource.

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